A century of letting the sun shine in
Some weeks back the Spirit of Jefferson took the position in a smattering of editorials that a bill approved by the West Virginia Legislature that prevented the public, and the media, from knowing who had applied for or received a concealed carry permit was an affront to the spirit of open government. While the bill passed — with only a handful of lawmakers, including Jefferson County’s Stephen Skinner, voting “no”— and while a majority of West Virginians may see it as a victory of its right of privacy, or, incredulously, an upholding of Second Amendment rights, it isn’t either.
Instead, the bill went straight to the heart of the concept of open and accessible government and the public’s right to know what its government is doing. Not wanting to know who your sheriff is issuing concealed carry permits to is like not wanting to know how your county board voted on a controversial land use matter; it’s like not wanting to know how your elected representative in Charleston or in Congress voted on a specific bill. And our lawmakers know this — in a column that ran last week in the The State Journal, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall sounded off about the ills borne of an unelected and unaccountable government bureaucracy substituting its judgment for the will of the people manifest through their elected representatives. But the phenomenon that Rahall describes is exactly the government you get when you allow elected officials themselves to make decisions apart from the ability of the public to scrutinize them.
In a column to commemorate this week’s 100th anniversary of Sunshine Week, Christian Trejbal, the Open Government chairman of the Association of Opinion Journalists, reminds readers that the Sunshine initiative had its beginnings in a Harper’s Weekly article by Louis Brandeis published Dec. 20, 1913. Brandeis, who would three years later be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson, likened the idea of open government to a disinfecting sunlight, and Trejbal, for his part, reminds readers exactly what happens when we give government secrecy the upper hand — we get the kind of roadblocks to information that the National Review Online encountered in its effort to get to the bottom of the closing of Mount Vernon during last year’s government shutdown.
As Trejbal notes, Brandeis, in his Harper’s article “What Publicity Can Do,” proposed his Sunshine initiative out of a concern for the increasing concentration of wealth and power among the banks and businesses of that time. Clearly, it’s a lesson we’re due to relearn. Whether it be big businesses or big government, if either becomes so opaque so as to block the light of scrutiny, to thwart our efforts to be a participant in how both government and private enterprise shape our political, economic and social landscapes, then we’ll have entered a new Dark Ages of our own devising.
— Robert Snyder