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Sunshine Week spotlights the public's right to know

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By Carol A. Clark

The battle between the public’s right to know and the government’s demand for secrecy rages on and is highlighted during national Sunshine Week, which wraps up Saturday.The annual event was founded after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors (FSNE) launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of exemptions to the state’s public records law.An estimated 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed three Sunshine Sundays because of increased public and legislative awareness.Several states followed FSNE’s lead and in 2003, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) hosted a freedom of information summit in Washington, D.C., where Sunshine Week began to take shape. ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee launched the first official Sunshine Week in March 2005.Funded primarily by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, the non-partisan initiative strives to increase the discussion surrounding the importance of open government and freedom of information.Participation includes print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofit organizations, schools and other entities interested in the public’s right to know what its government is doing and why.With a belief that providing people with access to information makes their lives better and communities stronger, Sunshine Week seeks to empower people to play an active role in government at all levels.The week-long initiative is meant to educate the public away from simply accepting excessive and unwarranted government secrecy and to highlight the kinds of information people have a right to see, where to get it, how to get it and what to do if someone tries to keep it from them.During this election year, the scope of Sunshine Week has expanded to cover the entire election season and candidates for public office are being asked to explain their positions on open government and Freedom of Information issues.Local Rep. Jeannette Wallace, Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe, discussed her views during an interview this morning.In addressing the importance of government openness to American democracy, she said, “I think it’s very important but it also depends on your definition of open. I certainly believe the public should be allowed to see what we’re doing but not be in the middle of us when we’re making decisions.”Regarding whether too much information is classified, Wallace said, “Yes, I think they get carried away with protection. It’s easier to classify things than to get caught in a controversy.”Wallace said she does support a federal reporters-source privilege to a certain extent. While there are extenuating circumstances – such as in a court case – when it’s important to ascertain the truth, she said in general, she supports the concept.Citing “some good days recently” for the Sunshine community, Associated Press President and CEO Tom Curley said, “After years of playing mostly defense, and mostly getting beat, we’ve finally been able to get back on offense and score a few points.”Speaking during a Sunshine Week dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, Curley pointed to legislative gains in Freedom of Information Act reform and toward a reporters’ shield law as particular bright spots.“Accomplishments,” he said, “that not long ago seemed unattainable.”“Some in the news business think it compromises our objectivity as journalists to set ourselves up as players on matters of public policy even in a cause as just and as close to our hearts as open government,” Curley added. “I respect the high-minded intentions behind this view, but I strongly disagree. When a matter of public policy poses a straight-up choice between the public’s rights of access to its government and a government effort to infringe or even narrow those rights, journalists cannot pretend to be disinterested observers.”