March 16, 2014

OUR VIEW: You have a right to know


---- — Welcome to Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The observance began as National Freedom of Information Day, originally observed on March 16. That’s the birth date of James Madison, the man generally regarded as the father of the U.S. Constitution and author of the First Amendment.

In simple terms, freedom of information is the right to know what your government is doing — how it spends your tax dollars, how it creates and implements policy, how it makes decisions that affect you.

Let’s say, for example, that you want a copy of the Logansport city budget. You have the right to walk into the City Building and ask for it. And the city has to give it to you, or it has to explain why it can’t.

If you request a public record in person, the governmental entity has 24 hours to respond to your request. If you make the request by mail, it has seven days.

In considering your request, the government office can’t ask why you want the information. It can’t even ask who you are.

The law mandating all that — the Freedom of Information Act — played a huge part in one of Indiana’s biggest stories last year. Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco filed a request for emails exchanged between former education chief Tony Bennett and his staff members showing they’d altered the formula for determining school systems’ A-F letter grades.

The story triggered a legislative review of the entire grading system. While it’s still in place this year, a new formula is being developed to use for the upcoming school year.

If all you want to do is examine the document, you have the right to do that right there in the office. If you want a copy, the office does have the option of charging you a reasonable fee.

Still, getting access to public information isn’t always easy. The battles sometimes rage on for years.

And the fight never really ends.

But the fight isn’t about liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Freedom of information advocates come from the right and the left and everywhere in between.

And they keep fighting the good fight year in and year out because they truly believe in a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

We salute their efforts.

THE ISSUE Today kicks off Sunshine Week, a national reminder of the importance of open government and your right to know what it's doing. OUR VIEW Open government laws ensure that your local, state and national government remains a government of the people, by the people and for the people.