Sunshine Week: It's Your Right to Know

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Sunshine Week, March 12-18, is a national annual celebration of the public's right to know what their government, at local, state, and federal levels, is doing. Now in its 12th year, Sunshine Week champions the conviction that open access to information empowers citizens to hold their government more accountable for its actions than they can without the information.

We all know it's a challenge to keep up with the deluge of information necessary to staying informed. A reputable free press helps us do so. It's no coincidence that Sunshine Week is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation.

Sunshine Week highlights the laws that assure our access to information about our government. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees a free press: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Since 1966, we've had the federal Freedom of Information Act, which gives the public the right to request copies of documents from any federal agency. In Vermont we have the Open Meeting Law, which declares all meetings of a public body "open to the public at all times, except as provided in section 313 of this title (on executive sessions)." 1 V.S.A. 310-314.

Thanks to Mark Schlefer of Putney for his part in helping the federal Freedom of Information Act become law (Reformer, March 11, 2017).

When we have the president of the United States repeatedly calling the legitimate press an "enemy of the people," we depend all the more on the efforts of the multiple reputable media outlets we have in Vermont, both locally and statewide, to keep us informed. Their reporters work diligently to uncover the truth and give us the information we need.

As a former journalism teacher, I applaud the student journalists (and their teachers), both locally and statewide, who believe in the importance of the First Amendment and in being ethical and responsible reporters. They and their peers are learning first-hand how to be active and effective citizens. I'm pleased to note that in the current Vermont legislative session, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, sponsored S. 18, an act relating to freedom of expression for students. The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate and has now moved on to the House. I support this bill because when students have the right to make ethical, responsible, and informed decisions about the content of student-run publications, they are developing essential skills of critical thinking, reasoned discussion, problem-solving, and evidence-based judgment, skills essential to their full participation in civic life.

Sunshine Week reminds us that we have both the right and the responsibility to know what our government is doing. The public must have access to reliable, accurate information in order to have open, transparent government. Responsible media are our partners in that endeavor—for 52 weeks a year.

Nancy A. Olson can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.


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