Editorial | Open doors wide

Editorial | Open doors wide

Do people really have a right to know? Or just a right to know what the government doesn't mind them knowing?

Saturday was a notable day for the newspaper industry as well as the public at large. It's the last day of what's become known as Sunshine Week (March 11-17), the week in the year when the newspaper industry makes it a point to emphasize the importance of openness by government at all levels.

A joint undertaking by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week is about driving home how important it is for the people to know what's their government is up to, why and the cost.

It's a rare public official who will take exception, at least in theory, with that premise.

It's also a rare public official who is comfortable with the idea of ordinary people looking over his shoulders and possibly second-guessing decisions.

That's why there is — and always will be — an inherent tension between those who work in government and those who want to know what those in government are up to.

Too many government officials figure that what the public doesn't know won't hurt them. That's why they prefer to control the flow of information, disclosing what they wish and withholding what could be problematic.

Here are some examples.

In recent weeks, Champaign school administrators and board members seemed to go far out of their way to avoid publicly discussing the details of a $3.4 million building purchase that comes on top of their ongoing $208.4 million school building and reconstruction plan.

It's hard to think of an innocent explanation for why an expenditure of that magnitude would go virtually unmentioned by the school administration and school board members. It would appear they just preferred, for reasons of self-interest, that the public not know about it.

Over at the University of Illinois, top employees offered conflicting descriptions and withheld explanations about the employment status of a former domestic terrorist with a lengthy criminal record. The deceit extended to misleading a member of the Legislature about the matter.

Meanwhile, over in Springfield, the General Assembly for years operated under a legislative inspector general whose reports into misconduct by individual legislators are, by law, forbidden to be disclosed to the public.

Short of being indicted for a criminal offense and put on trial, legislators who engage in confirmed misconduct that falls short of a criminal conduct are protected by official secrecy.

But even that superficial scrutiny was too much for legislative leaders. They neglected for several years to fill a vacant inspector general's post, finally taking action to bring someone aboard when a sexual-harassment controversy broke out.

The exception to that secrecy rule came in the recent release of a report on alleged sexual harassment by Ira Silverstein, a member of the Illinois Senate. Let's hope that exception becomes the rule.

Here's one more example that demonstrates just how committed our public officials are to transparency.

Illinois has the Freedom of Information Act that allows individuals and news organization to make official inquiries from public bodies and requires those entities to respond in good faith with the appropriate documents.

Well, some do, and some don't. The law allows considerable foot-dragging by entities that do not wish to comply, delays that are encouraged by the fact that there are no penalties for not complying.

Like so much else in Illinois — from campaign disclosure to conflict-of-interest rules — it's no accident the FOIA law was written in a way to make what is cast as mandatory in effect discretionary.

Such elasticity is just one more hurdle for individuals and media outlets must overcome in pursuit of the story behind the story — in other words, the real story.

That requires commitment — not just by those seeking the information, but in the form of pressure by ordinary citizens who believe government must respond in a forthright way.

In other words, Illinois needs a law that make it easier for information-seekers to get that to which they are legally entitled and harder for insiders to withhold what the public is entitled to see.

An informed public is an essential ingredient to a thriving democratic process, and sunshine, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, is "the best of disinfectants." So as another Sunshine Week passes, let's all remember the importance of letting the sun shine in on the dark recesses of government institutions, of all types, at all levels.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion