In the broad view, few Americans dispute the need for open government and, with rare exceptions, for public records to be available for public review. At ground level, though, arguments break out over what should and should not be public, the result of which is a gradual chipping away of the people’s right to know what their governments are doing in their name. Sunshine Week offers a golden opportunity to consider those issues and to reaffirm the need to maintain public access to public information.
Sunshine Week is the newspaper industry’s annual effort to promote openness in government. In many ways, New York is a model for public access. Its open government and freedom of information laws are strong, even if they are not always honored. In Washington, the Obama administration offers a mixed bag, as Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski notes in a story on today’s Viewpoints cover.
In Albany, several issues are percolating that require the attention of open government advocates. One involves freedom of speech. As the New York News Publishers Association notes, so-called SLAPP lawsuits – standing for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – are typically filed by wealthy plaintiffs in an effort to intimidate citizens from speaking out on public issues.
Current state law protects New Yorkers from a punitive lawsuit only when a citizen speaks out on a matter that is subject to regulatory approval. Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, has proposed legislation that would protect citizens who speak out responsibly on any matter of public interest. This should be easy for both the Senate and Assembly to support.
Another issue involves public information about pension payments. Historically, information about beneficiaries of pensions – spouses and others who inherit a public employee’s pension – has been confidential, while the employee’s pension was considered a public record. A 2011 court ruling, apparently inadvertently, put even the employee’s pension information off limits to the public. While most people would support privacy for a public employee’s survivors, information about a worker’s pension must remain public. A bill to do that passed the Assembly last year, but was allowed to die in the Senate, where it has not been introduced this year. The bill should be introduced and passed, unless senators think New Yorkers have no business knowing where their tax dollars are going.
A lot of ruckus has been raised recently over gun permits. After a downstate newspaper published detailed information about area gun owners, legislation was passed allowing those who seek a gun permit to keep their information confidential if they fall into one of several categories, including fearing for their life or safety, fearing harassment, being under an order of protection and more. No proof of those conditions is required.
The law went overboard in responding to an issue that rarely occurs, but if it is to be maintained, then anonymity should apply only to information that would identify the permit holder. Other data, including the ZIP code, gender and reason for seeking anonymity, should remain public. It is clearly important public information if a large percentage of residents of a particular ZIP code are in fear for their lives or safety. It will also help evaluate how well the law is working.
Finally, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has proposed restoring the rights of journalists to cover courts using still and video cameras. A 10-year experiment that ended in 1997 was never renewed, even though no evidence was ever produced that the presence of cameras interfered with the administration of justice.
Frankly, this should be easier than it is. Freedom of the press allows news access to courtrooms. Photographers and videographers are journalists who carry cameras instead of pens. The experiment worked well and it gave New Yorkers a better look at their judicial system in action. Cameras in court should be restored fully and permanently.