This is Sunshine Week (March 11-17, 2007). Sunshine week celebrates the Freedom of Information Act. The Freedom of Information Act was created in 1966. It requires government agencies to release their records to the public upon request. Certain kinds of information were exempted by the act, such as matters that endanger national security, or are protected by individual’s right to privacy. Rejected information requests are subject to court review. In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act. This act, which took effect in 1981, required that presidential papers be released to the public 12 years after an administration ended. However, this act was greatly restricted by an executive order in 2001, which allowed current or former presidents the right to prevent the release of the documents. Laws that allow us access to government papers are known as Sunshine Laws.
When you live in a representative democracy, sunshine laws are very important. They provide us with the information we need to evaluate are leaders, so we can make informed decisions when we vote. The ability of journalist and ordinary citizen to search these records and expose instances of fraud, waste and profiteering, can save the American taxpayer millions of dollars. In a democracy, information belongs, not to the state, but to the people. We elect out government officials to represent us, and it is our duty to make certain that the actions they engage in do represent us. We must hold them accountable. If, like Duke Cunningham, they are selling off government contracts for their own personal gain, it is our duty to discover it. If they are incompetent or wasteful in the running of the government, it is our duty to expose it. If they are breaking the laws of our land, it is our duty to prosecute it. In a representative government, we are obligated to hold our elected officials accountable.
In the age of the internet, it is easier than ever for the government to provide the people access to information. If every bill Congress voted on was up on the internet 24 hours before the vote, how many special earmarks might be discovered? Would Duke Cunningham’s actions been discovered sooner? What if every meeting with a lobbyist had to be reported on the internet? Would special interests be unable to buy our government? If our elected officials can not operate in secret, if every act they take is being scrutinized by the public, will they steal less, waste less, will they govern better, fairer, and more responsibly? Knowledge is power, when the government is permitted to control knowledge, they control power. When knowledge is dispersed to the people, then the power is in the hands of the people. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Do not sacrifice your liberty by allowing the government to restrict your access to information.