As you may be able to tell from the right side of this page, this is Sunshine Week, “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”
Usually this week and National Newspaper Week in October seem to come around during events that show disregard for open government and freedom of expression. The latest example of the former is the state Senate’s apparent refusal to vote on a bill that would subject the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association — the organization that sponsors high school athletic events that are played in taxpayer-funded facilities and coached and staffed by taxpayer-funded personnel — to the state Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
That comes nine months after the ham-handed effort by Republican leadership in the state Legislature to exempt legislators’ communications with constituents from the Open Records Law — an effort perhaps ironically thwarted on Independence Day by old-style media (newspaper reporting and opinions) and new-style media (social media). The effort to gut open government was, as you know, the result of a Democratic senator’s losing an effort to keep emails from government employees about Act 10 away from conservative groups that filed an Open Records Law request to see them in Grant County Circuit Court. The Open Records Law also allowed Republicans to find out how many government employees signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker and Republican senators during the aftermath of the Act 10 debate.
Open government means the public — not just the news media — can see what government does with its tax dollars. (Similar to the First Amendment, Wisconsin’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act apply to everyone, not just journalists.) That includes such news as finalists for other government positions, public employee pay, and what our area law enforcement agencies do.
There was a recent local example of open government, or lack thereof, when an investigator from the state Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation told the editor of your favorite weekly newspaper to not take photos of the evidence inside the house where a search warrant was being executed. The evidence was clearly visible from anyone across the street, as you can see from the photo on page 2A. Someone should inform DCI that its boss, Attorney General Brad Schimel, wrote a guest opinion for Wisconsin media this week, concluding, “I am proud of the steps the Wisconsin Department of Justice has taken over the last year to make government more transparent and I will continue to fulfill my promise to let the sun shine on state government.”
Members of the Town of Platteville board were fined for violating the Open Meetings Law by discussing items that weren’t listed on the agenda and were therefore not permitted to be discussed. The Town of Kendall board reached a settlement with two town residents who accused the town of violating the Open Records Law, and though the settlement included no admission of wrongdoing, you can read between the lines based on what the town was required to do in the settlement. And of course readers of this newspaper found out that the bishop of the Madison Catholic Diocese doesn’t seem to realize that UW System buildings hosting public events are also open to the news media.
Sunshine Week is occurring at the same time that, for the first time in the history of this nation, a presidential candidate is openly touting his hatred of the news media (as opposed to the politicians who hated and hate the news media but at least had enough sense to not say that) and wants to change the libel laws because he doesn’t like what the media writes about him, while simultaneously encouraging his supporters to assault protesters at his rallies. Friday must have marked a new low in this nation’s history by having a political rally shut down by protesters (whose belief in the First Amendment only extends to their own rights) while a news reporter was arrested for resisting arrest. (But given what happened during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.)
In an era in which distrust of government (rightly) increases every day, open government is needed more than ever. Not because it helps those of us in the media do our jobs, but because it helps all of us do our jobs as citizens.
And by the way … The final issue for political letters-to-the-editor to be published prior to the April 5 general election will be the March 23 Journal which means letters must be in the editor’s hands by first thing Monday morning. Depending on available space, not all letters will be printed.