Across the United States it is “Sunshine Week: Your Right To Know” beginning today.
In its simplest form, Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Sunshine Week is about government transparency — local, state and federal.
In our home state, legislators and local government advocates who want to change 200-year-old laws that protect the public’s right to know through these required publications mistakenly believe that posting these notices to obscure government websites is an objective and equal alternative to newspapers.
Their belief is that the Internet will reach the same local audience.
Their mindset is that taxpayer dollars will be saved at a time when budgets are at the forefront of most government discussions.
Their intentioned sacrifice is access to public information and the freedom of knowing and understanding the actions of local government.
Moving Legal Notices, or government announcements, to Internet websites and out of newspapers would save tax dollars, but the amount saved would be scant when compared to total budgets. By the same token, a few dollars will be saved but it will come at the cost of public knowledge and government transparency.
True, the Internet has its followers. But not everyone has access to the Web, and certainly not everyone who already subscribes to a newspaper of general circulation.
Legislators and local government leaders who support using the Internet exclusively for such Legal Notices are ignoring the obvious — that their constituents, the people who elected them, don’t want this unjustified change. It is especially true for those who rely on newspapers for government information like annexation hearings, land rezoning notices, public bids and government meetings, among others.
To their credit, it was refreshing recently to hear Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland and Cleveland City Councilman Richard Banks speak out against this move away from printed Legal Notices. In the most recent City Council session, they acknowledged that tax dollars pay for these notices. But, they believe, it is a worthy investment because it protects the people’s right to know without forcing them into winding, time-consuming games of search on a home or office computer or at the library for those who don’t own a computer.
Sunshine Week is about much more than just the Legal Notices debate.
It involves all arenas of public information and right-to-know legislation. But in Tennessee, and a few other states, the future of Legal Notices is at center stage.
Those who would intentionally circumvent the people, and the will of the people, should understand that Sunshine Week proponents include far more than news media and a few editors. Other active supporters include civic organizations, public libraries, nonprofits and school systems; basically anyone who believes in the public’s right to know.
The American Society of News Editors embraced Sunshine Week in March 2005 following unsuccessful attempts in Florida and a handful of other states to redirect existing public records laws.
It is a special week to millions of people and multiple organizations.
On the surface, some might see it as just another week.
At its heart, it is a celebration of freedom — the most cherished of which is the freedom of information and public awareness.
To transplant this American freedom onto exclusively a computer screen is wrong.
And those who would knowingly support such a travesty are turning their backs on the very people who look to them for help.