(Written by Tuna Chatterjee, CMLP Staff Attorney.)

It’s March and it’s Sunshine Week. This year, from March 16 – 22, the American Society of Newspaper Editors
is holding its annual initiative to raise public consciousness
on the need for open government
. The name “Sunshine Week” is derived
from the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s admonition that
“[s]unlight is the best disinfectant,” describing his belief that an
open government is more accountable to its people and thus less easily
corrupted. As I write this post, various participants in the media
community are similarly calling attention to the public’s right to know
what their government is doing and why in order to improve their lives
and better inform their communities. (See the Student Press Law Center, the Massachusetts Newspapers Publishers Association, and the Society for Professional Journalists for examples.)

Using freedom of information laws is a simple, and potentially
powerful, way of obtaining information about the activities of federal,
state and many local governments. You don’t need to hire a lawyer, and
no complicated forms are involved—requests can be made in a simple
letter. And you don’t need to be associated with a big media company to share what you find
with others who are interested in these issues; with nothing more than
an Internet connection, you can post the information and making it
available to anyone in the world.

Your request can yield information that has a real impact on your
community. For example, in 2003, a parent of a student in Texas, Dianna
Pharr, spurred by the financial crisis in her local school district,
began filing multiple requests under the Texas Public Information Act
to investigate the district’s spending and operations. She and other
parent volunteers established an online repository for the documents
she received and made them available on a local community website, Keep Eanes Informed.
Pharr’s efforts received coverage in the local press, and have enabled
her community to make informed decisions when dealing with school board
proposals. Similarly, in 2006, the nonprofit organization Public
Employees for Environmental Responsibility used the federal Freedom of Information Act
to get documents that revealed that genetically-modified crops had been
sown on thousands of acres in a federal wildlife refuge. A coalition of
nonprofits used this information to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating federal environmental law. For other examples of the benefits of sunshine laws, see the National Security Archive’s 40 Noteworthy Headlines Made Possible by FOIA, 2004-2006.

Unfortunately, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the government has
whittled away at the public’s access to government information in the
name of security. According to the Associated Press,
legislatures around the country have passed more than 600 laws
restricting public access to government information. As a result, you
cannot access a variety of information such as the safety plan at your
child’s school in Iowa, medication errors at your grandparent’s nursing
home in North Carolina, or disciplinary actions against state employees
in Indiana.

These access restrictions highlight the importance of Sunshine Week
and its focus on the need for the public to resist the current trend of
secrecy and direct legislative efforts towards a presumption of
openness. For our part, we at the Citizen Media Law Project intend to spread some sunshine
by publishing the next section of our Citizen Media Legal Guide on Access to Government Information
at the end of this month. The guide will not only include information
on federal and state freedom of information laws, but also information
on how to access government meetings, the courts, and Congress.