Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 19, 2013

Celebrating right to know

THE ISSUE: Sunshine Week.

OUR VIEW: This annual observance reminds us all of our right to know what our government is doing.

Welcome to Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The observance began as National Freedom of Information Day, originally held on March 16, the birth date of James Madison, the man generally regarded as the father of the U.S. Constitution and author of the First Amendment.

In simple terms, freedom of information is the right to know what your government is doing — how it spends your tax dollars, how it creates and implements policy, how it makes decisions that affect you.

Let’s say, for example, that you want a copy of the Kokomo city budget. You have the right to walk into City Hall and ask for it.

And the city has to give it to you, or it must explain why it can’t.

If you request a public record in person, the governmental entity has 24 hours to respond to your request. If you make the request by mail, it has seven days.

In considering your request, the government office can’t ask why you want the information. It can’t even ask who you are.

If all you want to do is examine the document, you have the right to do that right there in the office. If you want a copy, the office does have the option of charging you a reasonable fee.

Still, getting access to public information isn’t always easy. The battles sometimes rage for years.

The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety in 2008 and 2009 finally gave the Tulsa World information it had sought in 2001 related to the department’s treatment of minorities during traffic stops. Three years ago, the long battle came to an end when the department agreed to shell out $60,000 to cover about two-thirds of the newspaper’s legal fees.

And the fight never really ends.

Just weeks after a 2010 overhaul of Illinois freedom-of-information laws took effect, state lawmakers were already considering more than a half-dozen proposals aimed at making public records harder to get.

But the fight isn’t about liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Freedom of information advocates come from the right and the left and everywhere in between.

And they keep fighting the good fight year in and year out because they truly believe in a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

We salute their efforts.