Press rights are public’s rights

Distributed as a guest editorial by the Minnesota Newspaper Association in observance of Sunshine Week, March 12-18, 2006

Should the Minneapolis School Board have to disclose the terms of its separation agreement with Supt. Thandiwe Peebles, who resigned under criticism? Is it proper for the Kandiyohi County Board to select a new county administrator outside of a public meeting? Should residents be excluded from Cannon Falls Township Board meetings where officials discussed property-related issues surrounding a land-use dispute?

A basic premise of Minnesota open-government laws is that all information is classified public and all meetings are deemed open — unless laws specifically say otherwise. It’s unfortunate, but far too many public officials withhold information based on a personal preference or hunch.

Reminding citizens and public officials about the public’s right of access to government information is the focus of Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know, which kicks off March 12. At its foundation, Sunshine Week underscores the importance of the free flow of information for an open, effective and accountable government.

Minnesota has some of the strongest laws in the country regarding open government. And the public and the news media must never let down their guard in defending those rights. The bottom line is that public records are the friend of the people as well as the news media.

Defense of open meetings and open records frequently dominates the agenda of the Minnesota Newspaper Association during the legislative session. For example, the following major issues came up just last year:

  • The rules governing fees that agencies may charge citizens for copies of government records were improved. The new law says that, in most cases, only 25 cents per page may be charged. Under previous law, the calculation of charges was confusing, and costs were often much higher.
  • Legislators significantly expanded the amount of publicly accessible information about those who apply for positions on government bodies, boards and commissions – whether the selection is made by appointment or by election. The old law was very restrictive about disclosure of information on such candidates.
  • The statute determining who has access to polling places while an election is being conducted was clarified, so that journalists – who are the eyes and ears of the public in such situations – can have a reasonable opportunity to observe the electoral process. This is especially important because the number of controversies surrounding polling place behavior seems to be rising steadily.

It’s no coincidence that government at all levels has methodically sought to restrict access to specific information in the name of homeland security. Numerous government bodies still cite the 2001 terrorist attacks as justification to go behind closed doors to discuss myriad issues all under the guise of national security. Citizens should expect that the threshold to close meetings will remain high. At the same time, they should reject the use of national security as a camouflage for increasing attempts to restrict otherwise routine access to government information.

Most troubling, however, are the everyday attempts to block access to government information or to conduct public business behind closed doors. Landfill siting may be controversial, but constituents will be more accepting of the process if a county board identifies potential locations from the start. The departure of a controversial department head may not be official until formally accepted, but a city council will do itself a favor by announcing the resignation as soon as it is submitted. The closing of an elementary school may not be on a school board’s agenda for a few weeks, but administration will win higher marks if it informs residents of its intentions when first put on the table.

Public officials should understand the implications of their messages when they respond to the news media with “no comment,” only to verify the information days or weeks later. An equally compelling argument is to press for information based on the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law — especially, in the spirit of open government.

Readers often ask why newspapers stand firm on access to and publication of a variety of records. It’s much like the proverbial “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If the news media agree to one concession, all too often an individual or agency will try to stretch the rules. Soon laws are enacted with additional restrictions on what once was routinely public information — information that’s important to readers.

Newspapers will continue to stand firmly on the foundation that their communities —their readers – are best served by a full menu of public information rather than a selective serving.