As I’m writing this on Monday, thick, gray clouds are streaking across the sky above the UIS campus. The view out my window reminds me of what it’s like sometimes trying to get information from government agencies.
March 14-20 is Sunshine Week, an initiative that began in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors – now known as the News Leaders Association – to promote the public’s right to know what its public officials are doing. The name refers to the notion, written in 1913 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” especially when it comes to shedding light on government activities.
As a journalist for more than 21 years, I encountered many instances of public bodies withholding information that I and my newsroom colleagues believed we and, in turn, our audience should see. Often, it would be a redacted detail from a high-profile police report – or even the entire report. Other times, we’d have difficulty getting our hands on a contract between a public body and a vendor. Or, we’d have to haggle to find out the real reason why an elected body was meeting in private.
For Illinois journalists, the two laws that provide us and the public protection from public bodies operating in secret are the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. The Illinois Attorney General’s office has a web page that details both laws and includes a self-guided training session.
The Illinois Press Association and Illinois News Broadcasters Association both have sites containing resources about the laws and ways journalists can seek help navigating an open government issue.
In addition, Springfield attorney Don Craven specializes in FOIA and OMA and often represents media outlets and reporters fighting to get information. Don is an annual visitor to my Public Affairs Reporting class to speak about these issues.
One interesting case Don cites in my class involved the Champaign City Council and the local newspaper. A reporter was covering a council meeting in 2011 when he noticed members were exchanging text messages. The reporter filed a FOIA request to see the contents of those texts, especially those pertaining to city council business. The city denied the request, but courts ruled in the favor of the newspaper, saying the public has a right to know what the council members were discussing during the meeting, even if it was taking place via privately owned cell phones.
While you hear the most about FOIA and OMA from the journalism community, the public should remember the laws apply to them, too. The average citizen has just as much of a right as a news reporter to know how the government is spending its time and your money.
For journalists or other citizens who feel public bodies are being unnecessarily or wrongfully secretive, we do have some recourse via the attorney general’s Public Access Counselor. The PAC mediates disputes between the people and government, often by issuing advisory and binding opinions that indicate whether specific information should be released.
Transparency in government is an important aspect of what makes democracy work. Journalists are out there every day working to cast sunshine on information some public officials hope will remain hidden behind the clouds.
Jason Piscia is an assistant professor and director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield, who came to UIS following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register (SJ-R).
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