SUNSHINE WEEK: Victories and setbacks for open government

Also this week

Last year’s stories

A citizen’s right to know andjournalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers ofSunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom ofinformation issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The StudentPress Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on howstudent journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expandtheir journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

In a new,$450 million, state-of-the-art museum of news in Washington, D.C., mediaprofessionals, government officials and open-government advocates gathered onMarch 14 at the 10th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference todiscuss recent changes to the Freedom of Information Act and the importance ofsunshine laws to journalists. The conference was an early kick-off for SunshineWeek, an event that educates the public about open government, which began March16 and runs through March 22. The week-long observance is sponsored by theAmerican Society of Newspaper Editors.

Sunshine Week often features events like the Newseum’s FOI Day topromote awareness among journalists and policymakers on issues concerning publicaccess to information. These events serve as a way to educate journalists onrecent changes and trends that affect their ability to get records from publicinstitutions.

Sunshine Week focuses not only on the federal Freedom of Information Actbut also on other topics surrounding open government, such as state open-recordslaws. These laws are the functional equivalents of the federal Freedom ofInformation Act for state public institutions, and they are usually morerelevant for student journalists reporting on issues involving their highschools or universities.

Recent examples of both progress and setbacks to open government areprevalent. In Connecticut, a commission decided Feb. 13 that the YaleUniversity Police Department was performing a public function under state law,and that the public should have access to its records. In Virginia, the GeneralAssembly on Feb. 26 passed a bill restricting the disclosure of informationabout donors to three public universities, much to the chagrin ofopen-government advocates. In Pennsylvania, a new law was signed Feb. 14 thatupdated the state’s open records laws, informally regarded as one of theworst in the nation. For better or worse, sunshine and access to informationare news these days.

In December, Congress passed and President Bush signed a bill updating thefederal FOI law for the first time in more than a decade. Corinna Zarek, FOIService Center director for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of thePress, said two of the biggest changes are the addition of penalties foragencies that take too long to respond to requests and the creation of an agencyto mediate disputes when FOIA requests are denied. At FOI Day, however, someopen-government advocates voiced concern over how well the law will beimplemented.

In the spirit of Sunshine Week, the Student Press Law Center each day willfeature stories devoted to open-government issues. We have conducted severalopen-records tests to see how easily we could access information such as policeincident reports at public and private universities, reimbursement records forhigh school superintendents, and student government association minutes andannual budgets.

We hope student journalists can take this collection of information and useit to enhance the quality of reporting at their institutions, learning from ourexperiences and drawing from the most effective strategies that we have learnedthrough this process.