Turning on the light

picture-14by Andie Diemer
Nov. 19, 2008

Having the ability to walk into a public meeting or photocopy a public document is a freedom many Americans take for granted or may not even know exists. But some individuals have worked endlessly and devoted their life to ensure every citizen and reporter in America has the ability to access this type of information. In turn, the people using this information, attending meetings or other things may be harvesting information for their personal use or they may function as a watchdog.

Elon University has the privilege of being the headquarters for North Carolina’s Sunshine Center. Each year, the school celebrates with Sunshine Week, where panels, workshops and speakers focus on the gift of freedom of public information. This year, the North Carolina Open Government Coalition will host Sunshine Week at Elon from 16-21, 2009.

Connie Book, associate dean of Elon’s school of communications, said Sunshine Laws give way to an informed electorate and are essential for democracy to function correctly.

“Sunshine Week is a celebration of open government in our democracy, one week each year set aside to remember the importance of accountability of government to the people it serves,” she said in a statement.

Elon hasn’t held a closed city meeting since 1981 and a majority of public employees and elected officials correctly abide by the principles of open government, Book said. But even though the laws are merited with good intentions and seem to be clear, they still meet resistance today.

In the past 12 months, Elon’s Sunshine Center has received 187 calls and e-mails, varying from newly elected local government officials asking what constitutes a meeting to parents accessing information about schools.

“I’d like to say that North Carolina was leading the nation in these efforts, but we aren’t,” Book said in a statement. “Instead we are following and are the 39th state to launch an organization to promote open government and the First Amendment.”

According to the Star Online, several media groups, including the North Carolina Press Association, have filed suit against North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley for “alleged violations of state public records law.”

Since e-mail was not a main form of communication or considered public record when the laws were established, there is confusion over where to draw the line. But the controversy thickened when e-mails vanished from Easley’s official account and a handwritten note from former secretary of Health and Human Services about North Carolina’s efforts to reform the public mental health system was never released.

The changes in society have made legislators re-examine Sunshine Laws in regards to e-mail, but many people believe the e-mail accounts that come with being in public office — a tax-paid position — should be public record.

“These accusations don’t involve a few isolated slip-ups or omissions,” the Star Online said. “The pattern that emerges, based on sworn statements and other sources, suggests a top-down strategy to delete, destroy and conceal messages going into and out of the governor’s office.”

“Information that involves government business — printed documents, e-mails and otherwise — belongs to the public,” the Star Online said. “The North Carolina public records law makes that clear.”

Also, bear in mind that violations of public records and open government laws do not represent an offense against the news media, but against every person who calls this state home.

Because these forms of communication involve government business, they do belong to the public and it is not only a disservice to the news media but against every citizen when this type of information is not public.

“The information involved in the transaction of public business belongs to all of us,” the Star Online said.

Click HERE for more information about Sunshine Day at Elon.