Press rights: citizens’ everyday eyes and ears

by | Mar 11, 2007 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Distributed as a guest editorial by the Minnesota Newspaper Association in observance of Sunshine Week, March 11-17, 2007

Convene a discussion about press rights, and most people likely conjure up scenarios of editors and reporters at loggerheads with government officials over access to top-secret data. No doubt, that can be the case. On the national stage, we witness the Washington press corps pursuing information surrounding U.S. military initiatives in Iraq.

The reality, however, is that editors and reporters routinely are in the trenches seeking everyday information that local government otherwise wants to keep confidential. Consider these examples during this past year.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune sought a copy of a proposed contract with one of the Metropolitan Council’s unions. The Rochester Post-Bulletin requested details of a hazing incident involving a Byron sports team. The Stillwater City Council closed meetings to interview candidates who had applied to fill a council vacancy. The Breezy Point City Council called an “emergency” meeting – thereby avoiding the normal channels of public notice–to discuss the performance of, and then replace, the building inspector.

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,” March 11-17. At its foundation, Sunshine Week underscores the importance of the free flow of information for an open, effective and accountable government.

Editors and reporters regularly represent the public’s collective eyes and ears. The bottom line is that public records are the friend of the people as well as the press. Access to public information provides a daily barometer and record of community decisions.

The information in the above examples, and much more, remain a matter of public record due to the strength of this state’s Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act. Yet, not a year passes without proposals being advanced to restrict the flow of government data. That’s why the Minnesota Newspaper Association and newspapers across the state are diligent in our belief that access to information is in the best interests of everyone.

Among the newspaper association’s agenda – the public’s agenda – before the 2007 Legislature:

  • Resignations “under fire” – Existing law allows public agencies to negotiate a resignation with employees, no matter how serious the allegations, and all the documentation relating to the charges remains sealed. Look no further than the deal struck between the Minneapolis School Board and Supt. Thandiwe Peebles, who resigned under fire. Newspapers advocate legislation that says if charges are lodged against high-ranking local officials, resulting in an investigation and resignation, citizens should have access to some detail of the charges.
  • Expungement of criminal records – There’s a growing movement to allow an increasing number of criminal records maintained by courts and law enforcement agencies to be permanently sealed from public access. This would be a serious blow to employers, among others, who have a vital interest in having full background on job applicants to ensure workplace safety.
  • Access to labor negotiation proposals – Negotiations between the city of Duluth and one of its employee unions currently are under wraps because the dispute is before the Bureau of Mediation Services. Salaries and benefits typically represent the lion’s share of public agency expenses; citizens should not be left out of the process just because the case is before a mediator.

Government has legitimate justification to deliberate certain things in private, such as issues of national security. But it’s troubling and frightening to witness the increasing attempts to block access to government information or to conduct everyday public business behind closed doors.

Newspapers often are challenged as to why they 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.