Sunshine Week

Many years ago when I was studying Ancient Greek we used a primer about a farmer and his family. It was the Dick and Jane of the classical era with many simple phrases and repetitive descriptions.

Nearly every chapter started with a phrase that translated as either the word “first” or “on the one hand”. While I have forgotten all the Greek I struggled to learn, the phrase “on the one hand” always reminds me of that class.

While not quite the Acropolis, I was talking to someone recently who described a freedom of information request as being used to “strangle” a government office. Now I am a big supporter of the freedom of information act, and have written often in this blog about free speech, so I had an automatic biased reaction that the the “strangling” comment was an overreaction. As the conversation went on it became apparent that this was an actual a quote from an email.

It was suggested in a group email that records requests was a strategy that could stop a government project the group opposed. Foolishly (or perhaps as a threat?), the email described how they would make hundreds of record requests, tie up the legal department, grind everything to a halt and then put out the message that their requests were being denied.

The intention of the strategy was to create the public perception of an uncooperative government office withholding information from citizens. The emailer said the accusation didn’t have to be true, people just had to believe it.

On the one hand: I know it’s their right to request as much information as they want. Sunshine Laws (Open Public Records and Open Meetings Acts), provide a way for citizens to have oversight of their government outside of the ballot box. Free speech and free press necessitate access to public records. A more politically engaged citizenry is a good thing.

Who is to say that the suggested strategy was not prompted by repeated denied requests? Possibly equally obstructionist behavior on the part of the government office/officials? One would assume you ask for a government record because you want/need it, not to create obstruction.

On the one hand (the book never did say “on the other hand”): Using the Sunshine Law as a tactic deflates me. I don’t want to be reminded anymore than necessary that politics is a game and the side with the best marketing wins.  These kind of stunts get pulled out and pointed to when folks want to undermine perfectly good and useful laws. The “unnecessary burden” of transparency. That doesn’t feel like activism to me.

Maybe the emailer’s strategy was scuttled by others in the group. Maybe its hearsay. Maybe I’m naive.

And so I end Sunshine Week 2014 with the Beatles.

Happy Spring.

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