If ever there was a year to be aware of the precious and precarious nature of open government and the ability of citizens to hold it accountable, it is this one. When the leading candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination threatens that he will enact laws that will make it easier to sue media outlets whose reporting he dislikes, then the Constitution and the country have become an afterthought.
The candidate, of course, is Donald Trump, who is closing in on the Republican nomination.
Such changes in libel laws couldn’t happen, of course. The Constitution and the courts have well settled that public officials and public figures need to understand that they are newsworthy and subject to stories they might not like. Still, there are legal remedies for cases in which the media report on those people with reckless disregard for the truth.
But Trump’s recklessness offers clear evidence of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who understood that freedom of speech, religion and the press needed to be enshrined not simply in law, but in the Constitution, itself, where it would be more difficult for politicians to toy with them.
They knew that autocratic men such as Trump have always walked the Earth and always will. They are dangerous to democracy, and without the shield provided by the First Amendment, they would abuse American freedoms to further their own interests.
That may be the most immediate reason to take note of Sunshine Week this year. Sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine week is a national initiative “to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” It’s as American a concept as you can imagine, and valuable to Americans of all persuasions – Democrat, Republican, black, white, male, female, gay, straight and everyone else who has a stake in how American government works.
But the threats to Americans’ ability to know what their government is doing are more prosaic than the bluster of well-heeled demagogues. They exist, too, in city halls and school districts and on zoning boards. The live in Albany, where lawmakers work to deny New Yorkers critical information about who is donating to their election campaigns. With that kind of information, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, might have been less tempted to abuse his office for private benefit.
It’s a constant battle. Human nature dictates that people like Trump and Silver will always be among us, always looking for ways to enrich themselves, even if it’s to the detriment of the people they claim to serve. Some of that battle is fought by the press, but Freedom of Information laws are available to everyone. Open government statutes help the press to do its job, but the job is to inform its readers about what the government is doing with their money and in their name. And those same statutes give individuals the same access. They are important to understand and to protect.
That’s the point of Sunshine Week. It is sponsored by the news media, in defense of access that not only benefits Americans of all kinds, but that, as Thomas Jefferson observed, is essential to the survival of democracy. It may be the job of the news media to hold government accountable, but the idea that animates Sunshine Week is one that serves all who value their freedoms.