Sunshine Week: Keep up the pressure on government to be open and accountable
The citizens of a democracy should know what their government is doing, but politicians, bureaucrats and judges too often decide otherwise. This is why federal and state laws guaranteeing public access to government meetings and documents are so important.
This week, media groups, libraries, educational institutions and even the U.S. government are calling attention to the importance of transparency in an annual celebration called “Week of the sun.” The event was started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now known as News Leadership Assembly (Sewell Chan, editor of the Times editorial page, is a member of the Board of directors.)
The past year has been marked by some celebratory victories. For example, several news agencies last year filed federal requests under the Freedom of Information Act to identify recipients of taxpayer-funded assistance under an emergency loan program for local people. small enterprises. After the Trump administration released an amended list, a federal judge ordered the Small Business Administration in provide the rest of the details.
Additionally, courts and government agencies have compensated for disruption related to COVID-19 by providing virtual access to proceedings, making it easy to view but not always participate. The Supreme Court of the United States has become even more transparent, live oral argument conducted by phone. (He should continue to broadcast live when he returns to the in-person arguments.) And federal officials responsible for responding to access to information requests have received remote training on how to handle hundreds of thousands of cases. requests.
These are welcome developments. But it is still too easy for government officials to frustrate the legitimate public interest in the functioning of government, despite the existence of laws designed to ensure transparency.
The main one is the Freedom of information act promulgated by the president Lyndon johnson in 1966 and considerably strengthened in 2016. At a Sunshine Week event at the Department of Justice on Monday, Atty. Gen. Merrick garland said that “a loyal FOIA administration is essential to American democracy.”
He is right, but the law does not always keep its promise of transparency. In a March 11 letter in Garland, the Journalists’ Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Knight First Amendment Institute complained that the law was “hampered by high rates of deference, increased delays in responding to requests and, as a result, significant increase in the number of legal proceedings. against federal agencies. The letter urged the Justice Department to “take swift and decisive action to ensure compliance with the FOIA.”
Slow responses to requests aren’t the only problem. Derogations in law allow agencies to withhold material for a range of subjective reasons, including concerns about national security, individual privacy, and internal government deliberations.
With some requests, in addition, federal agencies may refuse to confirm or deny that a requested document even exists. The law also contains “exclusions” for certain criminal justice and national security matters, meaning they are not subject to FOIA at all. Withholding certain sensitive information, such as the identity of a confidential informant, may be appropriate, but non-disclosure should be the exception, not the rule.
The state of California is more committed to transparency than the federal government – at least on paper. In 2004, voters changed the state constitution to include the right of individuals to “access information relating to the conduct of the affairs of individuals”. And in 2018, the legislature approved SB 1421, which allows the public to view records of police misconduct and serious use of force under the State Public Archives Act.
However, some law enforcement agencies have dragged feet by complying. Time has followed Los Angeles County, alleging that the sheriff’s department has repeatedly refused to release public records on deputies involved in misconduct or shootings. This is one of many cases in which this newspaper, sometimes joined by other news outlets, has gone to court to demand information that the public has a right to see on issues ranging from possible misconduct of police to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment during immigration detention. centers.
The so-called “sun” laws can be further improved to make it more difficult for public officials to conceal their decisions in secrecy. For example, State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), author of SB 1421, proposed new legislation this would give the public access to additional records of police misconduct and impose fines on agencies that did not respond in a timely manner.
At the federal level, Congress should require members of the judiciary to be more open about their financial affairs, including any gifts they receive in connection with speaking engagements and reimbursement of travel expenses.
But no matter what the law says, some government agencies will prefer to operate in the shadows. That is why the government must be pressed to be transparent and accountable not only during Sun Week, but every day of the year.