Oh, Florida, you’ve given America so much over the past two decades. Hanging chads and the 2000 presidential election that dragged on for more than a month. Tales of giant alligators prowling the trailer park resorts. Pictures of massive sinkholes opening up and swallowing houses whole. And, of course, those wacky news stories about the ubiquitous “Florida man.”
But thanks to editors at newspapers throughout the state following the state legislature’s attempt in 2002 to gut Florida’s open records laws, there’s one thing Americans of all stripes can be glad originated in Florida: Sunshine Week. Soon after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Week, the organization now known as the American Society of News Editors began planning to take the effort national, and the first national Sunshine Week was celebrated March 13-19, 2005.
But why now? Why in the middle of March?
Well, it all focuses on James Madison, the third president of the United States and father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, who was born March 16, 1751. Madison, who lived at his estate Montpelier in Orange County, was one of the two driving forces behind the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 in Philadelphia. With his colleague, Alexander Hamilton, he wrote “The Federalist Papers,” a series of essays laying out intellectual foundation for a constitution; in the constitutional convention, he was the lead author of what, now, is arguably one of the most important political documents in world history.
A fundamental principle of Madison’s underlying the Constitution is that government, unchecked, is a danger to citizens and their freedom. It’s why Madison devised a three-branch government — the executive, the judicial and the legislative — to provide checks and balances on each other and prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. But the ultimate power in Madison’s political construct was the American citizen, armed with the ballot.
Information is one of the most powerful weapons a citizen can yield against a recalcitrant government, while secrecy fuels a government that is focused on enhancing its own power at the expense of the citizen.
Freedom of Information laws are on the books of all 50 states and the federal government and are supposed to tip the balance of power toward the public and the citizen. They give the individual the power and tools to wrest information from government and provide the checks Madison knew were so important.
Just in the last several weeks, the story of Hilde Lysiak, a tenacious little 12-year-old reporter on a family trip to Patagonia, Ariz., made the headlines. After receiving a tip to a breaking news event, she was riding her bike to investigate when she was stopped by a town police officer and asked for ID. She gave her name and said she was a reporter, to which the officer responded, “I don’t want to hear about any of that freedom of the press stuff” and threatened to haul her off to juvenile detention. Lysiak videoed their second, equally contentious encounter and posted it to her Orange Street News website, though the officer warned her, falsely, that doing so was against the law. When the video went viral, the town mayor apologized and reiterated her government’s strong support of the press’ First Amendment rights.
And closer to home, almost 15 years ago, a Nelson County couple, Lee and Paulette Albright, put the power of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to use when the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries announced it would be closing the Montebello fish hatchery to save money. The Albrights smelled something fishy in that rationale and wound up uncovering a scandal involving tens of thousands of dollars in improper gifts and even African safaris taken by DGIF officials and board members on the taxpayers’ dime. When all was said and done, the department was restructured from top to bottom, all because of two empowered citizens.
That, folks, is what Sunshine Week is all about: Citizens armed with information obtained with the power of the law behind reasserting the individual’s control over government. Not every instance of FOIA at work is going to make headlines across the state or result in a viral video, but each will make the case, over and over, that it is the citizen who controls government, not the other way around. Celebrate that.