Celebrating a society built on open government
We — this country, its leaders and all of us — are imperfect. We're human, and that means we get it wrong sometimes.
But this is about something we've collectively gotten right from the very beginning of this republic. It is embedded in the Constitution, is a cornerstone of our civic life and is why we remain a bastion of freedom. I'm talking open government, and this week the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon College is marking Sunshine Week. It's a celebration of the free flow of information and the people's right to know how its government operates. We will continue to argue about the scope and nuances of public records and open meetings laws, but in this country the government must do its business in the open. No other place in the world does it like us.
In this day of Twitter and the blogospere, an increasing number of everyday citizens are turning into reporters who shine a light on the inner workings of our government. We welcome them to join us as watchdogs of local government. We're all fighting for the same cause. And every one of those citizens has the same rights to information as members of the traditional media.
The N.C. Open Meetings Law has its shortcomings — particularly when it comes to personnel law — but it is also clear in its access to information. Here are a couple of points that citizen-journalists and readers might find interesting. The wording is taken directly from a pamphlet produced by the N.C. Attorney General's office:
• Who may inspect or get copies of public records?
Any person has the right to inspect, examine and get copies of public records. People requesting public records do not have to disclose their identity or their reason for requesting the information.
• Can the government require a person to tell why they want to see or obtain copies of public records?
No. The government may not require a person to give a reason for requesting to see public records. Access to public records should be permitted regardless of the intended use, even if a person's interest is business-driven or is based solely on idle speculation.
• Is there a specified procedure for requesting public records?
No. The law does not specify a procedure and there is no specific form for making requests. There is no requirement that requests be made in writing. There is no requirement that the person making the request refer specifically to the Public Records Law when making the request.
The government's responsibility to conduct its business openly also puts a responsibility on the press to report accurately and fairly. In last week's Smoky Mountain News, three letters criticized our reporting — on the meaning of freedom of religion, on political bias, and on the lottery. We believe one of the foundations of a free press is an obligation to offer our critics space to air their opinions. Good newspapers foster civic discourse on the important issues of the day, allowing all relevant sides to air their opinions.
When government tries to withhold information, we will call them out. That's also a part of our responsibility as a voice of the citizens who deserve to know what their government is up to. Western North Carolina is lucky to be served by a several very good newspapers that take this watchdog responsibility very seriously.
I could go into the details and argue that North Carolina still has progress to make on open meetings and public records. As a career journalist, I have run smack dab into the law's shortcomings. But this is Sunshine Week, so let's extol the virtues of a society built on open government, a way of life that sets this country apart from the rest of the world.