Sunlight in Virginia — A Constant Cause
By Mike Signer | March 14, 2011 | One Comment
This week marks the beginning of National Sunlight Week. The group launched in 2006 with the goal of fighting for transparency and openness of government records, with the help of a free press. As a Virginian and as the son of journalists, this cause has special meaning for me.
I believe to the core of my being that the press serves as essential role in a free society. Anyone in public life has their run-ins with reporters, editors, and, today, bloggers. But anytime a reporter has asked me a hard question, I’ve always recognized that we are both playing roles in a drama much larger than the issue of the day. The press exists to prevent government from becoming self-serving.
When I worked as a counselor to Governor Mark Warner in Richmond, who had a well-known penchant for transparency, one of my jobs was to handle Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that had been filed with state agencies.
Virginia has a strict FOIA statute. With very limited exceptions, the government must reply within five business days to any request filed by a Virginia resident. These requests often were not easy to handle. They required arduous sifting through documents and extensive consultation with record-keepers.
But the government was working for the people. Citizens almost always get the information they are seeking, which is as it should be. Virginia was the birthplace of the philosophy of openness and transparency. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson helped craft the basic philosophy that guides us today.
In 1800, Madison summarized the case for transparency in the U.S. He often likened liberty to a tree. When cultivated, it could give fruit. Left alone, it could shrivel and die. Regarding the press, he said “it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches, to their luxuriant growth, than by pruning them away, to injure the vigor of those yielding the proper fruits.” Why? Because “to the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.”
Virginia’s newspapers have signed on to National Sunlight Week in droves, offering specific arguments for the continuing relevance of transparency today. The Virginian-Pilot has an eloquent editorial in today’s paper. The editors write:
There is a philosophical argument for transparency: A government derived by the people must be forthright about how it spends citizens’ moral as well as temporal currency. That’s a reminder every government and every citizen needs every day. And it’s the reason for this year’s Sunshine Week, which began Sunday.
The News and Advance in Lynchburg also put up an editorial yesterday, where they revealed an unsettling problem that their reporters—reporting on the issue of sunlight itself—had uncovered in Virginia. They write that their reporters fanned out across central Virginia with the goal of determining how easy it was for an average person to request and receive certain widely available documents from various government agencies.
What they found was concerning. While many requests went off without a hitch, they write, in others, “reporters were asked to show a photo ID or were asked why they wanted to see this document or that report.” Here’s what they write:
Quite simply, that is not any of government’s business. The information belongs, first and foremost, to the public itself. And government has no business, not right to want to know why a citizen wants to be informed about the activities of his own government.
We need to maintain our vigilance as the world’s leading light of liberty. Anyone watching the world news, whether in Libya or Russia or Mexico, knows that journalists are under constant attack in repressive regimes. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, just this year, six journalists have been murdered, with another 40 harassed in Libya.
Thank God that we don’t have such problems here at home. But we can never become complacent. This will take steps both small and large. A terrific organization called Richmond Sunlight supported by the Virginia Interfaith Center works to make sure that the General Assembly is as transparent as possible. I recently became a supporter of their effort to raise money to make sure that they can make video available. I urge you to as well.
Virginia is the land of liberty. We have so much to be proud of. But that means there will always be work to do.