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Sunshine Week celebrates citizens’ access to public information

by Jean Maneke

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press traditionally recognize a week in March as Sunshine Week. For 2016, March 13-19 is the week when those activities will occur.

This celebration holds special significance for journalists, librarians and others who have an interest in transparency in government, and this year, the federal Freedom of Information Act – the “grandpappy” of these laws – is celebrating its 50th anniversary!

FOIA arose out of the chaos that occurred during the Nixon resignation and other events in the Watergate era. Shortly thereafter, a number of states began adopting local versions of the law governing public access to governmental records. Missouri joined this group in 1973. Since that time, Missouri’s Sunshine Law has been amended a number of times, but it continues to be the foundation on which access to information about government on the state, county and local level is based.

Missouri citizens use public records to help them learn about events in their communities and activities of public officials. Every year, the focus of the public in obtaining this access shifts as technology changes our world. Originally we were talking about access to paper records. Then requesters began talking about access to electronic records. Probably one of the most significant changes in the last year has been the focus on access to video created by law enforcement officers, whether from dashboard cameras or body cameras. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a news story about how access to this video evidence either supports law enforcement in its actions or helps ensure justice.

And, because we are in an election year, one cannot help but notice how many candidates for public office, on both the state and national level, include the word “transparency” in their rhetoric as they discuss the changes they will bring to government. Candidates often say that distrust of government is the basis of their platform. Lawyers play a key role in helping government and the courts function to the benefit of the public and our clients – because we realize how critical the operation of these systems is to our way of life.

In whatever form or source, access to records continues to be a key principle to ensuring good government. Learn more and join in the celebration of Sunshine Week and the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act at www.sunshineweek.org/.

Jean Maneke, of The Maneke Law Group, L.C., has served as counsel to the Missouri Press Association since 1991, dealing primarily with the association’s Sunshine Law issues and serving the newspapers in the state as the MPA Hotline attorney. In that role, she fields calls from reporters on a daily basis about sunshine law and libel issues. In addition to her work for MPA, she serves as a board member of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a vice-chair of the Missouri Bar Media Law Committee, and  has spoken numerous times to media, law enforcement and governmental groups across the state regarding the sunshine law.

 

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