Does the First Amendment mean anything anymore? Is this nation so fractured that citizens don’t want to embrace what one of the pivotal Founding Fathers wrote? Our Founding Fathers agreed on the Bill of Rights.
They didn’t approve anything like “except for that” as in the now popular but ludicrous “fake news” idea that has crept into our social consciousness thanks to political opponents of truth. Liars are now credible.
How did we get here? Our Founding Fathers would have none of that. At least one, James Madison, would have nightmares.
Sunshine Week — sunshine simply means the nation’s founding principle of open government and access to public records is to be celebrated, not scorned — starts today. That means discovering truth is to be celebrated.
This coincides closely with James Madison’s birthday (March 5) and National Freedom of Information Day (March 16). Madison (1751-1836) was not just a Founding Father but a man of principle who served as the fourth president of the United States (1809-17).
He is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for his pivotal role in drafting and promoting the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison penned the First Amendment in defense and protection of the basic citizen right to hold government accountable — this is not about the media, it’s about you. Individual rights and freedom of information were significant to Madison. Thanks to him, we have those constitutional rights.
Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, along with hundreds of media organizations, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and other participants, engage in public discussion on the importance of open government this week (including Manatee Tiger Bay on March 16), as should be the case at least once a year. The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. Lawmakers have that shameful reputation more than a decade later, adopting exemption after exemption year after year.
There are several hundred exemptions to Florida’s national landmark law. This state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law was enacted in 1967 — Chapter 286 in the law. The law requires all meetings of any state, county, or municipal board or commission be open to the public and all state, county, and municipal records be open for a personal inspection by any person. This was the first-in-the-nation law that guaranteed open government, a standard held high by other states. Any single individual or governmental body who violates those rights must be held responsible.
“In Florida, transparency is not up to the whim or grace of public officials. Instead, it is an enforceable right.” Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi, states that on one of the official websites of her office, www.myflsunshine.com.
Furthermore, the site states: “The Florida Constitution, which sets forth our rights as citizens of this great state, provides that the public has the right to know how government officials spend taxpayer dollars and make the decisions affecting their lives. The principle of open government is one that must guide everything done in government for its public.”
This legislative session promises to be another pitched battle for open government with dozens and dozens of bills that attempt to block your ability to check on government. One piece of legislation creates a public records exemption for anyone applying for president, provost or dean of any public university or college. The reasoning? Potential applicants will shy away from public knowledge and the best and brightest won’t apply. History proves that to be false. Florida has been blessed with exceptional hires for more than half a century. That bill will be heard in a House panel Monday.
Another bill, filed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, aims to constrict the public from hiring an attorney to file a lawsuit against a government agency for failing to follow the Sunshine law. His bill requires the complainant to show by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the agency intentionally broke the law, thereby proving criminal intent in order to get attorney’s fees. Would any official leave a document trail to prove that? How foolish would that be? By that measure, nobody would prove that — without an open-records request that essentially would be wasted time.
Thank god for Florida’s First Amendment Foundation for being such a strong watchdog on this year after year invasion on citizen rights over the First Amendment and open government and open records.