This week is national Sunshine Week – and we don’t mean spring break and the start of Daylight Savings Time, though those are surely welcome too.
Sunshine Week occurs each year in mid-March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, whose framework formed the basis of the U.S. Constitution. It’s an annual reminder of why transparency in government is so important and why the quote of another former U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, runs at the top of our opinion page: “Where the press is free and every man is able to read, all is safe.”
A free press matters. And yet the press can’t do its job of keeping watch on the centers of power, mainly government, if government isn’t open and transparent. Most people agree open government is important, and those holding governmental power usually claim they are transparent in their dealings. We in the press know that’s often not the case.
Three examples, ranging from the national to local might make this topic more tangible:
1) During the COVID-19 pandemic, national health reporters did not have access to individual doctors and scientists within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a time when the CDC was relating contradictory and at times erroneous information to the public.
Kathryn Foxhall, a national open government expert who last year won the Wells Memorial Key, the Society of Professional Journalists’ highest honor, has been working to stop the practice of preventing reporters from accessing individual government employees through the practice of “censorship by public information officer.” In her SPJ acceptance speech Foxhall said:
“We now have over four million pandemic dead. For over two decades public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, have controlled public scrutiny of themselves. Reporters are kept out of buildings, not allowed to speak to anyone without the bosses’ censors, and often not allowed to speak to anyone at all.”
2) The Virginia legislature just last week passed House Bill 734, which if signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA), will limit the media’s access to criminal records, even of closed cases, reversing a bill from just last year that had given the public access to inactive criminal investigation files. This bill purports to protect victims’ families from the release of sensational and hurtful photos and other materials, but it’s a prime example of legislation by anecdote.
Yes, there have been instances of graphic images becoming public, which should not happen, but the public does have a right to the facts of inactive criminal cases. Now law enforcement agencies themselves get to determine what’s released. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, testified against this bill as did the Virginia Press Association. To their credit, Alexandria’s legislative delegation – State Sen. Adam Ebbin, Del. Charnielle Herring and Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker – all voted against H.B. 734.
3) Former Alexandria Magistrate Elizabeth Fuller was fired last fall for talking to the Alexandria Times about a closed criminal case. The reason given for Fuller’s firing was that she had violated the cannons that govern magistrates’ behavior, though it did not appear to us or experts we consulted that any of Fuller’s actions violated the stated cannons of Virginia law.
In a convenient twist, the Supreme Court of Virginia, which oversees the state’s magistrate system, in 2019 unilaterally declared itself exempt from state sunshine laws. This action limits the ability of media organizations like the Times from finding out what actually happens when a whistleblower like Fuller is fired.
The conservative legal organization Judicial Watch has sued the Virginia Supreme Court on Fuller’s behalf, arguing that her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. We hope the Virginia Supreme Court’s self-exemption is also addressed.
Sunshine laws are important. They need to be strengthened at every level of government.