Law sheds light on government’s practices

Sunday, March 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:02 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 17, 2011

Today begins Sunshine Week. You already knew that, I expect. But just to avoid confusion, I should clarify that this has nothing to do with the arrival of spring, or even spring training.

Sunshine Week is a kind of gimmick created by journalists and our fellow travelers in hopes of drawing public attention to the value of openness in government. Not altogether coincidentally, journalists also hope to remind you of the value of what we do in reporting on the activities of government at all levels.

Here’s a recent example that may illustrate what I mean. Last month, The Washington Post published a long article in two parts that detailed the problems faced by soldiers recuperating from their war injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The problems included bureaucratic delay and neglect, inhumane living conditions and other inexcusable obstacles to recovery.

The two reporters had spent four months on their investigation. Immediately, the military officials responsible were on television pledging to correct the deficiencies and insisting they hadn’t known what was happening on their watch. Members of Congress vowed investigations. The injured heroes and their families suddenly were visible and finally stood a chance of getting what they were owed.

Locally, we have the newspapers to thank for exploring the intricacies of the MOHELA deal, including the likely violation of the Sunshine Law by the UM System Board of Curators, which voted without a word of public discussion to support a legislative package that is — or would be if it passed — almost certainly unconstitutional.

“Sunshine Law” is the informal name of Chapter 610 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, also known as the Open Meetings and Open Records Law. Its most important sentence is this: “It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.”

The Missouri Press Association was the most aggressive force behind passage of the Sunshine Law, and journalists are the most vigilant enforcers. The real beneficiaries, though, are the citizens.

The men who created our nation understood the value of openness, though their successors often forget it.

James Madison, who is often called the “Father of the Constitution” and who chaired the committee that drafted the Bill of Rights, wrote: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Sunshine Week includes Mr. Madison’s birthday, Friday.

Journalists, especially the much-maligned mainstream media, provide most of the “popular information” we need to govern ourselves. That’s as true in Columbia as it is in the District of Columbia. It’s also true, of course, that journalism itself is one of the institutions from which we should demand more openness.

To celebrate Sunshine Week, I propose a toast to Mr. Madison, to Chapter 610 and to the nosy reporters who push open the closed doors of our government.

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