We experience our fair share of gray skies in the Pacific Northwest, but that doesn’t mean we welcome a cloudy atmosphere inside the halls of state government. In fact, the sun ought to be shining so brightly inside our capitol people have to wear shades. In 2020, freedom of information advocates will be keenly watching the legislative climate and demanding transparency from our lawmakers.
As we await a crucial state Supreme Court ruling on the Legislature and transparency, let’s take this opportunity to refresh our collective memories on why access to public information is so crucial in a democracy. Take the Legislature. The Supreme Court has been asked to decide if the Legislature and legislators are covered by the state’s Public Records Act. They should be, but legislators argue they removed themselves through one or more amendments to the Act, and that the Legislature as a branch of government was never an “agency” under the law or covered by the Public Records Act in the first place.
It has to be said that access to public information is not a political issue, that it is neither left-leaning nor right-leaning. I call it good-government-leaning. When we talk about transparency, we’re not talking about politics; we are talking about governing. People from across the political spectrum agree, government must be open, transparent and responsive. And there are reasons why, in a democracy, we have to assume the responsibility of knowing what our lawmakers are up to.
In 1983, the U.S. invaded the tiny West Indies island of Grenada. The reasons for that four-day invasion remain somewhat obscure, as does the Reagan administration’s decision to exclude the press. A couple of years after the invasion, I had the opportunity to ask then-retired broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite about the decision to exclude the press. What he told me has stuck with me ever since.
It was his story of walking with U.S. soldiers through Germany at the end of World War II, as they liberated concentration-camp survivors. As the troops and reporters and photographers walked through the villages, horrified by the scope of human suffering and genocide they were now witness to, the townspeople followed behind weeping and pleading that they weren’t to blame. They said they had no idea these atrocities were being committed behind those walls.
But Cronkite did blame them. He blamed them because they had willingly given up their right to a free press. The free press Cronkite was talking about was very different from the free press in America today, but the concept is the same. The concept is that in a free society, it is imperative to have an informed citizenry. Those of us who see great value in keeping this grand experiment of enlightened self-government going for the next 250 years need to impress upon our fellow citizens the importance of knowing what government, all government, is doing.
Cronkite saw the dangers firsthand of people abdicating their responsibility to know what’s going on, to know what government was doing in their name. And while this is an extreme and horrific example of popular willful ignorance, it should serve as a stark reminder of the consequences of unchecked government.
We’ve elected people to represent us in Olympia. We pay their salaries. They spend our money and make no mistake, they work for us. They do not have an automatic right to hide their work or communications from us. If they think they need to keep something from the public, then they ought to have to fight like hell to do that and be able to justify and do it only under the most specific and agreed-upon circumstances.
This year, please join the voices of Washington citizens who believe all local, county, state and federal business needs to be conducted with the sun shining brightly inside the halls of government. A lack of sunshine may be unpleasant, but it is deadly to democracy.