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Celebrating Sunshine Laws

from Sunshine Week:

OPEN GOVT. IS GOOD GOVT., PUBLIC TELLS POLLSTERS ON THE EVE OF THE SECOND NATIONAL SUNSHINE WEEK

News coverage, community events, library and school programs on tap; SunshineWeek.org offers participant materials, public information

Washington—Two national polls conducted on the eve of the second national Sunshine Week open government initiative, March 12-18, show a public that equates open government with effective democracy and is concerned about the rise in official secrecy at the national, state and local levels.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the effort expands on the Sunshine Sunday concept begun in Florida in 2002 and since observed in several states.

“Polls are people, and once more the people have demonstrated that Lincoln was right: You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool most of them for very long,” said Sunshine Week Honorary Chairman Hodding Carter III. “They know that information is power in a democracy, and they don’t like being cut from the facts about their government’s deeds.” Carter is a former journalist, State Department spokesman, Knight Foundation president and is now a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sixty-two percent of respondents to a Scripps Survey Research Center poll conducted at the request of the American Society of Newspaper Editors said “public access to government records is critical to the functioning of good government.”

The poll indicated that only a third of Americans consider the federal government “very open.” Twenty-two percent of respondents consider the federal government “very secretive”; another 42 percent said it was “somewhat secretive.” The Scripps poll is online here.

When asked about secrecy at the state and local level, respondents to the Scripps poll were less concerned: 10 percent said these legislative bodies were “very secretive” and 30 percent said “somewhat secretive.” More than half, 55 percent, said state and local governments are open to public review.

The Scripps poll, conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University with a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation, surveyed 1,007 adults by telephone from Feb. 19 to March 3. There is a margin of error of plus/minus 4 percentage points.

In the second survey, eight in 10 (81 percent) said democracy requires government operate openly. The survey was conducted by the AccessNorthwest research and outreach project at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman, with a grant from the Knight Foundation and National Freedom of Information Coalition.

While nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) told researchers that open public records and meetings keep government honest, nearly as many (63 percent) said it was okay for government officials to keep records secret if they deem it necessary, and almost three-quarters of the public (73 percent) believe the president should “make some public records secret if it might help with the war on terrorism.”

The WSU poll of 403 adults nationwide, which has an error margin of plus/minus 5 percent, also charted the public’s thinking on access to particular records, such as police reports, salaries of public employees, and property tax records, as well as general thinking about privacy concerns and personal information on the Internet. Those results are online here.

“These surveys confirm the country’s growing concern about excessive secrecy,” said Andy Alexander, chairman of ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee and the Washington Bureau Chief for Cox Newspapers. “They also show that citizens overwhelmingly believe that open government is good government. The public understands that openness—to the greatest degree possible—will produce government that is more efficient, more honest and more responsive to the citizens it serves.”

To help participants develop Sunshine Week coverage and activities, the Sunshine Week online Toolkit offers myriad free resources, including:

English and Spanish language print and broadcast public service ads

English and Spanish language Sunshine Week logos for use on related materials

Nearly 60 editorial cartoons from more than 40 cartoonists

Opinion columns from federal lawmakers, opinion leaders and state officials

Editorials

Informational charts and images from Knight Ridder/Tribune Graphics

A listing of state-specific resources and events planned for Sunshine Week

A link to “Bright Ideas for Sunshine Week 2006,” incorporating examples from 2005 and fresh ideas for 2006

Special resources specifically for libraries, including bookmarks and a flier

“The first national Sunshine Week began to address the worst Freedom of Information rollback of our lifetime,” said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at Knight Foundation. “This year’s event promises to shine even more light on open government issues.”

Newspapers, broadcasters, online sites, libraries and schools around the nation have prepared special coverage and events for Sunshine Week. A form for participants to submit their work will be posted on the Sunshine Week site, http://www.sunshineweek.org/. Also, leading up to Sunshine Week, organizers already are being told of government proclamations at the state and local levels.

In addition, to local events planned around the nation, there are several events slated for Sunshine Week that have a more national focus.

On Monday, March 13, ASNE/Sunshine Week will join OpenTheGovernment.org, the League of Women Voters and several national libraries associations in presenting “Are We Safer in the Dark?” The panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, moderated by Geneva Overholser of the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington bureau, will be fed live via satellite to host locations across the country. Following the national program, those sites will engage in discussions of openness issues particular to their states and communities. For more information, click here.

In addition, the League of Women Voters has awarded small grants funded by Knight Foundation to 14 chapters that will host Sunshine Week events. The LWV also has developed a resource guide for all chapters planning local Sunshine Week events. More information is online.

On Wednesday, March 15, Sunshine Week Honorary Chairman Hodding Carter is the guest on Bob Edwards’ XM Public Radio program. Carter, a former journalist and government spokesman, is now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. XM Satellite Radio, headquartered in Washington, currently has more than 6 million subscribers. Go to XM Radio for the Bob Edwards Show schedule and channel information.

Sunshine Week also is taking an expanded role as a co-sponsor of National Freedom of Information Day on March 16, the First Amendment Center’s annual meeting of FOI experts and interested parties in Arlington, Va. Information can be found online here.

On Friday, March 17, the PBS weekly newsmagazine NOW will air a one-hour special about government secrecy as part of Sunshine Week. In “The Sunshine Gang,” NOW will focus on the erosion of open government in America through the stories of whistleblowers.

“In the name of the war on terror, an alarming amount of public information is being kept secret,” says NOW Executive Producer John Siceloff on a special Web page created for the program. “Some fear the government’s grip on information citizens have the right to know is growing tighter. We have regularly raised up the voices of whistleblowers on NOW and we are glad to be contributing to the important Sunshine Week effort with an extended broadcast.”

Sunshine Week is funded by a grant from Knight Foundation in Miami. The foundation promotes excellence in journalism worldwide and invests in the vitality of 26 U.S. communities. For more information about Knight Foundation, go online to http://www.knightfdn.org/, or contact Larry Meyer, vice president of communications, at (305) 908-2610 or meyer@knightfdn.org.

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