Sunshine Week Guest Column: Support Journalists, Fight Government Secrecy

I yield the floor to Yankton County Observer editor Brian Hunhoff, who has gotten press in local papers around the country with this Sunshine Week call for journalists and all good citizens to take closed government as a personal insult:

Don’t take it personally?

That’s usually good advice, but today we urge the opposite reaction to all government bodies operating in the shadows, purposely avoiding public scrutiny and genuine transparency.

In other words, take closed government personally. Please!

  • Take it personally when a reporter is kicked out of a city council meeting so members can hold an illegal or unnecessary executive session.
  • Take it personally when public access to government records is refused, limited, or attached to excessive fees.
  • Take it personally when a judge jails a reporter for refusing to reveal a confidential source.
  • Take it personally when government fails to limit political contributions, and ignores ties of mutual benefit between private business and elected officials.
  • Take it personally when a governor issues secretive pardons.
  • Take it personally when a presidential administration works vigorously to identify and criminally prosecute government whistle-blowers.

Take all of this personally because it directly affects the quality and scope of government information you get from the press.

Wouldn’t it be great if more people understood a reporter’s exclusion from a meeting also excludes them, the general public, from learning details that are being hidden?

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone embraced the notion that government openness is an essential pillar of democracy?

Wouldn’t it be great if more people remembered the press serves as their eyes and ears in the halls of government?

Wouldn’t it be great if more people became aware that jailing journalists not only intimidates the press, but also chills the public’s right to know?

Wouldn’t it be great to see thousands of citizens press Congress to pass a federal shield law protecting reporters from being locked up for doing their job?

There is a moving scene in Return of the King when a resurgent monarch inspires his small army to stand against overwhelming odds by delivering a stirring cry to arms.

Wouldn’t it be great to see people everywhere show that kind of passion and unity in the fight for freedom of information and the battle against government secrecy? With apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, that speech might go something like this:

“A day may come when the courage of men fails and our freedoms die; when speech and religion are governed; when we forsake our reporters and break all bonds of fellowship with the Fourth Estate … but it is not this day!

“There may come an hour of darkness, wolves and shattered shields that bring our First Amendment crashing down … but it is not this day!

“On this day, we battle for our Bill of Rights! This day, we join with journalists in the war against government secrecy, corruption, and waste.

“This day, the press and public stand … together! This day, we fight … together!”

Wouldn’t that be great?

[Brian Hunhoff, “Go Ahead, Take Closed Government Personally,” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 2015.03.05]

7 Responses to Sunshine Week Guest Column: Support Journalists, Fight Government Secrecy

  1. Good stuff. Thanks, Cory for posting it here.

  2. Glad to, Curt! Gotta give our homegrown columnists some love. We need more writers like Brian to challenge the information gatekeepers.

  3. Douglas Wiken

    A couple days ago we attended a Winner School Board meeting. The pledge of allegiance was followed by two hours of executive session regarding the wrestling program or the wrestling coach as the excuse for the session. All the parents deeply concerned about wrestling then left the meeting. Mostly the usual coach reports, teacher reports, and superintendent reporting on SD legislative action regarding schools.

    There were then 3 of us expressing interest in the board paying more attention to academics than to irrelevant sports. The Supt. and S. Brd had tried to give the city of Winner a building that cost 2.3 million and is probably now worth over $3 million. They then had an “appraiser” claim the building was only worth $260,000.

    A taxpayer had sent all members an email with specific data on the appraiser’s qualifications and another with law regarding SD restrictions on board members being on a school board simultaneously on another board.

    Nothing was said about those emails at the meeting. I then asked if the members had received the messages I had received. The Supt. started waving his arms and said yes, but because it involved a board member and a legal question, it would be covered only in an executive session.

    As far as we were concerned, there was no reason to keep a lawyers opinion secret from the general public and the press. The facts were facts.

    Executive sessions are misused and should be severely restricted.

  4. Douglas,

    Interesting comments, and well said. It is good to hear that you and others are taking an active approach with your school, and I agree that the focus is more on sports and other things than academics.
    Your comments also touch on my greatest frustration, and getting others to take an active role in their districts. Everyone will complain, but very few will take the time to attend a meeting, and even fewer will formally address a board with their concerns. My issue on my board is trying to limit public input. We actively restrict public discussion until the end of the meeting, once everything is decided. Furthermore, we limit input to agenda items only, which only is enforced when the commentary is negative. I completely disagree with this, but I am only one of seven on the board, and have asked the public for help in voicing their disapproval, but none are willing to step forward – even though I hear many complaints.
    Keep pushing, write letters to the editor in the newspaper. Get on the agenda, and force a public discussion on the matter.

    Also, just a matter of curiosity – what is the other board position that school board member is currently seated on? From my understanding, that law only applies to positions that the public votes on.

  5. Deb Geelsdottir

    Thank you for your excellent writing and passion for good governing Mr. Hunhoff.

  6. Douglas Wiken

    Joe K. You may be right about the requirement that it is an elected board. This guy is an appointee on a city board which often puts the two in nearly direct confrontation. I will do some more checking on the actual laws later.
    The conflicts of interest are not good for the school or the city.

  7. interesting, doug, that all came out for wrestling (a tuff sport by any measure) discussion, then left. that is the reality-people are too busy and uninterested in the complex, boring, dem-killing republican political business in the state (and school board meetings are indeed republican politics. note governor’s chief of staff sitting on blue ribbon summer study on ed funding)

    how does the dem party bring OUT THE VOTE!!?

    we should adopt tight, smelly, poly wrestler suits in blue emblazoned w/ donkeys and wear them everywhere, sweat shirts, baseball caps???