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Published: Wednesday, 3/17/2010

It's your right to know

THE return this week of Daylight-Saving Time isn't the only effort to expose northwest Ohioans and other Americans to more sunshine. This also is Sunshine Week — an annual campaign by news media such as The Blade, public libraries, and other research groups to remind Americans of the importance to our democracy of open government and freedom of information.

Digital technology has made more information available to more people than ever before, with just the click of a computer mouse. But too many ostensibly public agencies, at all levels of government, continue to thwart citizens' efforts to keep tabs on what they are doing. Records and events that should be open to the public too often aren't, or only become accessible after needless bureaucratic obstructionism and delay.

A new survey conducted by Ohio University for the American Society of News Editors concludes that more than two-thirds of Americans consider the federal government secretive. That belief, which seems largely determined by overall attitudes toward President Obama, runs counter to his campaign pledge to give Americans the most transparent government ever.

Yet to a large extent, the President has kept his promise; his administration is far more candid and accountable than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. For example, the Web site recovery.gov tells Americans how and where the government is spending economic stimulus money.

But much remains to be done. Despite Mr. Obama's initial suggestion that negotiations between the White House and Congress on health-care reform could be televised, that legislation largely has been crafted in murky secrecy.

According to the OU poll, respondents think state and local governments are more “open and transparent” than Washington. If only that were true.

At the moment, The Blade is challenging a gag order issued by a Henry County judge that legal experts say is unconstitutional on its face. Judge Keith Muehlfeld wants to prevent news media from reporting on the trial of a woman charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in the death of her 13-month-old daughter until at least a week after the jury trial ends.

The Ohio Supreme Court has stayed that order temporarily. But the court has yet to rule conclusively on the judge's disregard of the First Amendment in seeking to thwart reporting on a trial of obvious public interest in open court. The delay is not encouraging.

Politicians and bureaucrats who don't feel like making some public information public often dismiss attempts to seek its release as special pleading by news media or other interest groups. In fact, such efforts are in behalf of your constitutional right to know how government is spending your tax dollars and otherwise affecting your life. What could be more basic?

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously remarked that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” During Sunshine Week — and every other week — public officials need to be reminded that they cannot conceal public information or meet in secret merely because they think doing their business openly would be inconvenient, expensive, or embarrassing. If their constituents don't remind them, who will?



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