This week has been designated Sunshine Week 2020 and, by no coincidence, the Kentucky Open Government Coalition celebrates its one-year anniversary this week.

The coalition emerged during the 2019 legislative session as a voice for citizen opposition to lawmakers’ attempts to undermine the public’s right to know.

Since March 2019, we have actively advocated for open government by regularly posting on developments in Kentucky’s sunshine laws on our Facebook page. Our very small original following has grown to more than 1,000 followers and continues to grow.

We’ve witnessed open government victories, defeats and draws. We’ve made a few mistakes and experienced a few setbacks. But we’ve done much more of which we are rightly proud.

We have expanded awareness of the threats to our laws in newspaper columns across the state, filed amicus briefs, provided training to citizens and officials, responded to inquiries concerning public access to records and meetings, actively participated in the National Freedom of Information Coalition and championed the public’s rights under the laws.

We’ve angered a few detractors but found many more like-minded friends. Our efforts have been, and will continue to be, focused on the danger to open government from complacency, indifference and blind acceptance of the official line.

Soon, we will launch a Kentucky Open Government Coalition website. It will feature a searchable compilation of the past year’s posts, a regular blog, guidance for effective use of the laws, additional resources to enhance public understanding of the laws, frequently asked questions, and more.

We welcome your suggestions for additional features as your voice for open government during Sunshine Week and beyond.

Sunshine Week was inaugurated by the American Society of News Editors in 2005. Since that year, the media, government watchdogs and ordinary citizens have celebrated the importance of open government and the federal and state laws that support the public’s right to know.

The celebration takes many forms. Newspaper editorials and articles, open government compliance audits, online webinars, meetings with elected officials and public forums recognize the critical role these laws play in enabling us to know what our government is up to.

The event’s timing coincides with the birth week of the philosophical Founding Father of sunshine laws, James Madison.

It was Madison who famously declared: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Madison was not commenting on the importance of access to government information but, instead, on the importance of access to public education. And not just public education, generally, but public education in Kentucky! 

But thanks to the revival of the quotation in the congressional debates preceding the enactment of the federal Freedom of Information Act in 1965, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1966, and its invocation by Justice Douglas in his dissent in EPA v Mink, a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case construing the act, the quotation is regularly co-opted by open government advocates as a rallying cry.

Madison’s words embody the principle that secrecy in government violates the public good.

Kentucky’s open meetings and open records laws were enacted in 1974 and 1976, respectively. They are premised on legislative policy statements recognizing that “the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret” and that “free and open examination of public records is in the public’s interest.”

Laws that enshrine these principles, and that afford citizens a means of enforcing their right to know, must be jealously guarded and rigorously enforced.

These are dark times. Uncertainty abounds. It has never been more important than today to enforce our right to know what our government knows and how it is responding to the critical health threat we face.

And it has never been more important to mark the occasion of Sunshine Week. The Kentucky Open Government Coalition proudly joins in the common mission of those who celebrate it to encourage the public to embrace, protect and preserve the rights these laws bestow and to further open, transparent and accountable government.

Amye Bensenhaver is cofounder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition and a retired assistant attorney general. She can be emailed at missbhaver@gmail.com. Jennifer P. Brown is a co-founder of the coalition and the editor of Hoptown Chronicle, an online newspaper in Hopkinsville. She can be emailed at editor@hoptownchronicle.org.

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