From Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to the Montana Capitol in Helena and every city hall and county courthouse in our state, freedom of information laws are helping to bring you the news.
During Sunshine Week, which runs through Saturday, newspapers across America will highlight what the right to public information means to readers and all citizens of our great state and nation. Of course, the point is that "sunshine" is important all year long. Consider:
- School board meetings (and all other meetings of public governmental bodies in Montana) must be announced in advance to provide citizens with the opportunity to participate.
- The records of federal and state courts are open for public inspection (with certain exceptions spelled out in law) so no person can be charged and convicted in secret.
- If taxpayers paid for a study of water quality or economic development potential — or almost anything else — the public has a right to read it.
- When public officials make mistakes or fail to do their jobs, citizens have the right to know what went wrong and what was done about it.
The Montana Constitution declares that the people have:
- The right of participation in government, which means the opportunity to attend meetings and comment on decisions before they are made by government officials.
- The right to know, which means access to public documents — written, digital or otherwise.
That's the way the freedom of information laws are supposed to work, but government agencies and officials don't always adhere to the letter or spirit of open meetings law. The Billings Gazette has sued to get public information that the city of Billings refused to provide. In a case involving three city police officers who had sex while on duty or in a city patrol car, the District Court ordered information released and ordered the city to pay legal expenses for The Gazette and KTVQ. The city hasn't yet paid.
Nowhere is the need for public disclosure more blatantly apparent than in the silence of federal law enforcement agencies in Montana. Neither the Bureau of Indian Affairs police who patrol most of Montana's Indian reservations nor the FBI typically provide timely public information that Montana law enforcement agencies do. The federal "no comment" policy leaves the community in the dark about what happened in cases of missing persons and serious crimes. By keeping mum, BIA and FBI keep the public from knowing how the law enforcement agencies are doing their jobs.
The right to know is integral to evaluating government performance, which is essential for self government by an informed electorate. Freedom of information is central to American democracy.
The Billings Gazette frequently files formal requests under federal and state laws for public documents, usually about four or five a month. Editor Darrell Ehrlick consults at least once a week with an attorney who specializes in open government law.
Sunshine Week is once a year, but the work of keeping our government open to the public goes on all year long.