By John Barrows
Montana Newspaper Association
As March arrives, bringing with it bouts of sunshine, it’s appropriate that we celebrate the sunshine … not just for the flowers and grass, but for the bright light it shines on local, state and national governments.
March 11 begins National Sunshine Week, celebrating open government and citizens access to public records, documents, actions and deliberations.
Montanans are fortunate that in 1972 the Montana Constitutional Convention delegates drew back the drapes on government after a century of closed meetings, hidden records and secret actions. The “new” Constitution recognized that openness was of such importance in letting Montanans know what their government was doing for, and to, them that they included not one but three Constitutional guarantees of openness … the Right to Know, the Right of Participation and the Right of Expression. And, to balance them, the Constitution included a Right of Privacy for individuals.
Together, Montana has a set of strong Constitutional guarantees that assures Montanans will have access to government records, actions and deliberations… all of them necessary to enforce their own rights of participation in state and local government.
The rub, however, often comes in the enforcement of those rights. Montana provides the right to challenge violations in court, and if successful, may overturn decisions and in many, but not all, cases receive attorney fees for their efforts.
You might think that with 40 years of a strong Constitutional right to know guarantee there would be few challenges left to make, but you would be wrong.
Hardly a week goes by that someone, somewhere in Montana, is not trying to enforce their right to know, their right to public records or their right to participate. Within the past few weeks there has been a flurry of court decisions, most of them advantageous to the public, brought down from District Courts and even the Montana Supreme Courts. They have been filed by individuals, by private organizations and yes, of course, the media.
It just seems to be second nature to some political folks, including local governments, to not want the bright sunshine of Freedom of Information shown upon the way they conduct business… as it has been since the dawn of the Constitutional Convention’s guarantee of rights to the public and individuals. Only an informed public can be an active public when it comes to conducting the public’s business in government.
That’s why occasions such as Sunshine Week are important, to reinforce the public’s knowledge of their rights to open government, and to remind them that the challenge of defending those rights fall upon all of us.
Published March 14, 2012