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.
— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Or, if you prefer, in video form:
It’s Sunshine Week, a week for dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It’s a week for action. That part falls to you. Sunshine Week’s backers – most prominently the American Society of News Editors – describes this year’s worthy goals like this:
This Sunshine Week, we urge citizens to press their public officials to do more, seeking not just broad statements of support for greater transparency but specific pledges and plans of action to enhance the public’s right to know.
Sunshine Week 2011 can be a time when you as a citizen or civic organization make a difference by identifying local or state open government shortcomings and then asking your public officials to pledge and initiate specific improvements in local or state law and practice.
To assist your efforts, the Sunshine Week team presents a sample Open Government Proclamation that you, or your group, can take to your public officials to seek a commitment on open government with specific action that will lead to increased sunshine.
So get out there! Call your government to account. As a tribute (and a small push), I offer some highlights of resources for local newsgatherers.
For Arizona journalists and bloggers alike, the Arizona First Amendment Coalition compiles great online resources. There’s a link to the Arizona Public Records Book, the Open Meetings Law, a journalist’s guide to Family Educational Rights and Policy Act. These are rules Arizona newsgatherers should know. No excuses – you can’t argue for your rights if you don’t know them. The coalition also posts a link to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) letter generator to help you get started.
A note on public records requests: Ask for what you want firmly. In general, I am a huge fan of manners, but research shows that with records request, this approach doesn’t work. The University of Arizona’s David Cuillier publishes a study contrasting the approaches in the journal “Communication Law and Policy.” It’s definitely worth a read.
Also, a reminder: The First Amendment doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want. There are restrictions, the most famous of which involves fire and a theater. You can’t publish as fact something you know is false. Well, you can, but the trouble that will follow makes the prospect a dubious exercise in judgement. The First Amendment Center has great resources illuminating this point and others. Among my favorites are the yearly State of the First Amendment reports.
I can’t conclude this post without pointing you toward my very favorite resource for newsgatherers interested in government accountability – Investigative Reporters and Editors. Their site holds a treasure trove of tips on how to get information and how to interpret it. There are links to recent investigations, training opportunities and how-tos of many kinds. I guarantee a perusal of that site will leave you with a long list of story ideas and strategies. We will all be better off for it.