Archived Story

Katie Rohman: Shedding light on government secrecy

Published 11:55pm Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The sun will come out March 13-19 when the public’s right to know is put in the spotlight.

Created by journalists, Sunshine Week, a nonpartisan, non-profit initiative, is about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Sunshine Week was conceived after the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors’ founded Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some legislators to create new exemptions to the state’s public records law.

Sunshine laws, public records laws, the Freedom of Information Act — however you refer to them, these laws do not just apply to journalists; they are for the public. Any information we can access, you can too.

Newspapers were founded to inform the public on issues they have a right to know — more specifically, on the First Amendment, which encompasses the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. This applies to everything from letters to the editor to blogs to protests.

Newspapers strive to ensure a transparent government; however, each state has a different open meeting law with different guidelines and restrictions.

For example, Michigan’s Open Meetings Law closes collective bargaining, real estate transactions and pending litigation discussions. Discussion of certain personnel matters and student records may be closed if a relevant board votes to close.

According to the Michigan Open Records Law, the following are exempt: information deemed private; trade secrets; advisory communications with government agencies; attorney-client communications; medical counseling and psychological facts or appraisals; records of campaign committees; and some law enforcement records, including  those that interfere with law enforcement proceedings and those that disclose the identity of a confidential source during the course of a criminal investigation.

For example, a police blotter is public information; however, information that could prevent a case from being solved does not have to be handed over.

Journalists have battled law enforcement, government officials and other public employees over open record and open meeting laws since they were enacted.

Ever wonder why councils sometimes vote on issues without really discussing it during public meetings? E-mails, phone calls and coffee shops have long been ways for some officials to discuss issues without the watchful eyes of citizens and the media.

Issues such as these are what journalists fight every day, and it’s not just because we can. We do it because citizens have the right to know how their money is being spent and if their elected officials are doing that they are elected to do.

But the fight for transparency is not one that can only be won by media. Citizens have access to all the information we do. They have a right to know officials’ salaries, board meeting agendas and minutes and police reports.

To request information, one needs to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) letter. For a FOIA letter generator, visit www.rcfp.org/foialetter/index.php.

To learn more about the FOIA or writing FOIA le tters, contact the Michigan FOI Committee, (313) 577-4572 or aa5200@wayne.edu; or the Office of the Attorney General, (877) 765-8388 or www.michigan.gov.ag.

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