Legislation that empowers citizens and the free press to access public records is vital.
If total control over information is one of the pillars of authoritarian government, then every step away from that kind of information monopoly is a move toward freedom.
In a democratic system where the people choose their leaders, we have a right to know if those leaders are properly using the power entrusted to them. Yet, the temptation toward secrecy is ever present among public officials and government functionaries. It is simple human nature to prefer working behind closed doors rather than out in the open where critics are ready to pounce.
Public officials in a democracy need to fight that inclination, but even the best of them often fail in that effort. That is why legislation that empowers citizens and the free press, such as the Freedom of Information Act and, in this state, the 50-year-old Public Records Act, is so vital. They are the tools people can use to pry open closed doors and unlock secrets that need to be revealed.
Washington’s Legislature, even with progressives in charge, has balked at complying with rightful requests to disclose more information, having added hundreds of exemptions to the Public Records Act over many years. Our legislators’ drift toward nondisclosure has gotten so egregious that a new ballot initiative may be necessary to pull them back into the open light.
On the national level, one of the toughest challenges is getting the federal government to relent from its obsession with putting the top-secret stamp on even nonsensitive documents and then leaving those mountains of public records hidden in the dark for decades. Historians, journalists, investigators and the public have a right to know how decisions and actions long past came about, not only to fully understand our history, but to inform future choices.
This is Sunshine Week, a time to lift up the principle of the people’s right to know. It should be celebrated with action.
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