A sermon on sunshine

The scripture today is Chapter 610 of the Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri. That’s Missouri’s Sunshine Law. In the several pages of that scripture, the law establishes that Missouri government at all levels should operate with a viewpoint of openness. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a city council, a fire district board, a housing authority, a county commission, or other governmental body violates that law. Sometimes the media forces the issue. On rarer occasions, the taxpayers do it.

“Sunshine Week” was last week. You probably didn’t hear much about it. You should have.

Sunshine week is an event spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors which often is joined by other journalism groups including the Radio-Television Digital News Association which used me for a couple of years as one of the national sources for interviews about the week.

Do not dismiss Sunshine Week or various state Sunshine Laws as things for the news media. We’re the ones who talk about them the most. But those laws and the week that calls attention to them are really the property of the general public.

The media are the ones that have consistently pushed for more openness in government but the public has a stake–no, it has a responsibility–to aggressively use the tools and benefits of Sunshine Laws. Anything those of us in the media can demand under those laws is something the private citizen also can demand.

Why do we need Sunshine Laws? One of the great journalists of the 20th century, I. F. Stone, once wrote: “If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words, ‘governments lie.'”

Not all the time. This note is not intended to stoke the fires of paranoia about our governments. But the record is clear. Governments from the national councils in Washington and their leaders to local fire districts often have the feeling they can function better in secret and sometimes lie.

Or, as a former Governor of Missouri once told me, “I’ll never lie to you. But there will be times when I don’t tell you the truth.”

The state Sunshine Law was written to help citizens get beyond that kind of double-talk and to put officials who would practice it under the eye of a public that should demand more integrity than that.

Sunshine Week should be EVERY week and every citizen should celebrate it. The laws say that every citizen has the right to know about and attend meetings of public bodies. Exemptions from open meetings and open records laws are specific and are limited. The laws say that government records are available to any citizen asking for them, with limited exceptions, at no or at minimal cost and the citizen does not have to reveal why he or she wants to see them.

In a time when loud and intimidating voices proclaim the inerrancy of their words, average citizens must assume a greater personal responsibility for the way they shape their own thoughts. The average citizen must seek out the truth in a media world of increasing manipulation and splintering.

Sunshine Laws are one of the greatest tools the public has to force its government to act IN PUBLIC. Sunshine Laws require government agencies, boards, commissions, and councils to work within public view and because of that, in the public interest.

The basis for all open meetings and open records laws lies in words attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be”

The Sunshine Laws are your laws. They are important to your freedom.

A people is only as free as it chooses to be. Use the tools you have to fight ignorance, to become better educated, to counter spin and manipulation, and in the process strengthen your freedom.

We have an official Sunshine Week about this time every year. Today begins one of the other 51 unofficial but no less important Sunshine Weeks.

Celebrate it with your own efforts.

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