Sunshine Week: Shining a Light On Open Government and Public Information 

National takes on the need to keep public information easily accessible

Since 2005, the national Sunshine Week movement has sought to promote both open government and freedom of information on a large-scale public stage. The nonpartisan initiative is built around the principle that the public deserves to know what its government is doing.

The project is headed by the American Society of News Editors, and many news outlets across the country support the effort by writing and publishing op/ed stories on a variety of topics surrounding the idea of open access to information.

The following is a selection of these stories, offering readers the national perspective on openness in government.

Redefining the Public's Right to Know

Sunlight Foundation

This Sunshine Week, a time when we reflect on the public's right to know and the importance of open government, isn't it time to address the Pandora's box left open by the Supreme Court last year? In two landmark decisions—Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and, subsequently, Speech Now v. Federal Election Commission—the Supreme Court radically altered longstanding campaign finance disclosure requirements, ultimately giving corporations the right to spend as much as they want on campaign ads—often without disclosing the donors who funded the ads. As a result of that decision, spending on American elections now looks more like a money laundering scheme than democratic self-expression. "Dark money" spending to elect or defeat candidates in the 2010 midterms topped $450 million dollars, or about 15 percent of total spending on elections. Of that amount, $126 million came from secret donors.

After the Citizens United decision, the White House and Democratic lawmakers rallied around a bill, the DISCLOSE Act, to create transparency for the new money being unleashed into our political discourse. Despite the House's prompt passage in the last Congress, Republicans blocked the bill in the Senate. And so far, no action has been taken by the 112th Congress to address this problem.

If you think spending on the 2010 election broke records, wait until the 2012 race heats up later this year. So long, campaign disclosure. Hello, unlimited secret spending. The good news is there is a promising way to counteract this problem. One key ingredient to empowering the public's right to know is the Internet. The other is demand.

Public pressure does affect Congress. A groundswell of support convinced Congress to let us all "read the bill" by posting bills on the Internet before consideration. The House even passed a rule this year requiring all legislation to be publicly available 72 hours before Congress takes action. It's time to put the heat on the 112th Congress to pick up where the last Congress left off. Congress should require real disclosure for political spending, so anyone can see on a government website who is behind the torrent of spending in American politics. Specifically, any organization making electioneering communications must disclose its donors in enough detail to follow the money. Furthermore, the laundering of contributions must be avoided, by requiring donors to organizations that make electioneering communications to also disclose their donors. For this disclosure to be meaningful, all of this information must be posted online in real time.

This is not about limiting anyone's free speech; it's about empowering all Americans to know who is trying to influence their vote.

Likewise, the public has a right to know how special interests and lobbying help shape legislation--for better or worse. After Citizens United, campaign finance and lobbying disclosure have become even more closely linked. How? The lack of election spending disclosure rules for corporate spending owing to the Supreme Court's decision has allowed special interests to influence public policy through the very real threat of unlimited--and often anonymous--spending on campaign ads. In effect, lobbyists can--without ever saying a word--threaten that their clients will spend millions on ads if senators or representatives do not do what the lobbyist wants.

The solution is meaningful lobbying disclosure reform, so journalists and citizens alike can "follow the action," even if they can no longer follow all of the money. Online reporting of lobbying information is critically important in today's Washington. We need better lobbying disclosure laws to create real-time, online disclosure for lobbyists' activity, so we know what's happening while it's happening.

We can't let our democracy go to the highest bidder. Let's put the pressure on to redefine the public's right to know.

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit that uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit sunlightfoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight's projects.

Rebooting Transparency

By Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics

The promise of the developing transparency movement in this country is greater accountability of our elected officials.

Embedded in that promise is a hope for more openness, greater efficiency and accountability in how lawmakers and government officials care for the public's interests, spend taxpayer money and combat corruption.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis made his famous statement--"sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants"--in 1913, he was focused on the corrupting influence of major corporations and monopolies in all aspects of American life.

It's now nearly a century later, and in many ways the promise of transparency is being refined, enabled by the Internet and ever-expanding troves of data. Watchdog groups and new media outlets are mixing and matching different types of information to tell the story of how our electoral system affects our public policy process and how our tax money is spent.

Call it sunlight rebooted. I'm sure Brandeis would approve.

But for all the good work done over the past two decades by groups like the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Project Vote Smart, the Center for Public Integrity and others, we understand that we've just scraped the surface of what is possible.

The Center for Public Integrity's recent work with the Wall Street Journal to examine the Medicare claims database for patterns of fraud and abuse is a glaring example of how access to basic data can save the taxpayers millions by revealing where abuses appear to be prevalent.

Texas launched an expenditures database for vendors and purchases in 2007.

Comptroller Susan Combs reported in Governing magazine in May 2009 ("See-Thru Government" by Ellen Perlman) that the state had found $4.2 million in "efficiencies," or potential savings, simply by combining all state spending into one database and looking for patterns.

The promise is real. But it isn't easy.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics (followthemoney.org) takes on a Herculean task, compiling campaign-finance data from all 50 states, which have 50 different sets of laws, 50 different disclosure agencies, 50 reporting requirements and 50 report formats. Despite the obstacles, the institute's efforts have resulted in a database of more than 19 million records chronicling $16 billion in contributions. Combining that with official lobbyist registrations from all 50 states reveals the types of patterns that tell voters when a group's legislative activities reveal it is trying to protect itself over the public's best interest.

The institute and other watchdog groups that harvest public data understand the power of accurate information and put it on the Web, open-source, for others to innovate with. We also understand that data is just a tool. It needs a curious, determined individual or group to put it in context, which gives it value.

While the promise of transparency is a more accountable democracy and efficient government--and it is a promise that can be realized--it will only happen when citizens and voters pick up the tool and put it to good use.

Only then will the sunlight reboot be complete.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics collects and analyzes campaign contribution information on state-level candidates, political party committees and ballot committees. Explore the free, searchable database of contributions online at followthemoney.org.

United States Alone Among Western Democracies In Protecting "Hate Speech"

By Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition

An inebriated John Galliano, sitting in a Paris bar, unleashes an anti-Semitic rant ("I love Hitler") that is captured on a cellphone camera and posted on the Internet. Within days the Dior designer is not only fired from his job but is given a trial date to face criminal charges for his offensive remarks.

In the same week, the U.S. Supreme Court extends First Amendment protection to the homophobic proclamations of a fringe religious group whose founder and members, picketing near a funeral for an American soldier killed in Iraq, hold signs stating, among other things, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God hates fags" and "You're Going to Hell." The court, in Snyder v. Phelps, bars a suit against the religious group for emotional distress because the demonstrators' message, although causing "emotional distress" to the dead soldier's family, dealt with "matters of public concern."

The contrast between these cases reflects fundamentally different views about the role of free speech in a democracy. France, hardly an intolerant or autocratic country, imposes criminal fines for racial epithets, Holocaust-denial, anti-immigrant advocacy and other forms of "hate speech." And the French are not alone. To varying degrees, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada--liberal democracies, all--enforce similar laws banning hate speech.

The United States is an outlier when it comes to freedom of expression. Although we share other countries' repugnance for hate speech, particularly the race- and religion-baiting variety, the First Amendment reflects a uniquely strong aversion to government censorship of any kind. As interpreted in Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a century, the First Amendment forbids government suppression of ideas, no matter how vile, deranged or offensive--as long as the speaker doesn't cross the line separating speech and illegal action (or succeed in inciting others to engage in violent crimes).

Galliano, if he lived in New York, could not be prosecuted for giving vent to his bigoted views. (His defenestration from Dior, on the other hand, likely would stand.) In New York he would be a free man, although there are certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and elsewhere that Galliano would be well-advised to avoid (to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart speaking to a Nazi officer in Casablanca).

The Constitution's protection of hateful speakers and their hateful speech is based on considerations that are fundamentally pragmatic. One is the insight that trying to block the spread of an idea is self-defeating because it serves only to give that idea legitimacy--why else would government wish to discredit it?--and, by making the idea illicit, to increase its potential audience. This hypothesis is supported by the experience of China and other autocratic governments in censoring the Internet.

The First Amendment also reflects the view that the best way to neutralize a bad or dangerous idea is to force it to compete in an open "marketplace of ideas" where its defects and shortcomings will be exposed through debate. For example, blogger-critics of Galliano--whose background is Jewish and Gypsy--were quick to skewer him with the observation that his affection for Hitler would have been reciprocated, during World War II, with a one-way trip to Dachau. France's piling on of criminal charges is hardly necessary to discredit Galliano's views.

Still another consideration embedded in First Amendment cases is the prevention of self-censorship caused by uncertainty about what is, and isn't, protected. The court has sought to minimize this uncertainty by adopting rules, in the case of expression about public officials or issues of public importance, that are highly speech-protective--even to the point of protecting, in some circumstances, expression that is false or extremely hurtful.

To foreigners, America's protection of hate speech is baffling because the rants of bigots and hate mongers are not worth protecting. Americans do not really disagree. Let's be frank, the speech of the religious extremists in the Snyder v. Phelps case, like Galliano's tirade in a public bar, has absolutely zero social value. We nonetheless protect such speech, not out of an excess of tolerance, but because even more than hate speech we fear a government that has the power to decide what speech to protect and what speech to ban.

Intolerance of censorship is a powerful First Amendment value. It is a value worth remembering, and honoring, during Sunshine Week.

The First Amendment Coalition is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting freedom of speech and the public's right to know, firstamendmentcoalition.org.

A Sea Change Long Overdue

By Nick Pappas,

editorial Page Editor at The Telegraph and New Hampshire Sunshine Week Coordinator

During the presidential campaign of 2008, it was not unusual for then-candidate Barack Obama to talk about transparency and the importance of open government.

So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that on his first full day in office, the president issued a memorandum to the heads of all executive departments restoring the original presumption of disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, a reversal from the previous administration.

"My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," he said. "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

While there have been some broken promises along the way--posting all bills on the Internet five days before signing them and the pledge for televised health-care negotiations on C-SPAN--the Obama administration has introduced a number of initiatives to, in essence, do what Toto did to the Wizard of Oz--pull back the curtain for all to see.

Prime among those initiatives was the Open Government Directive, an order issued through the Office of Management and Budget to all executive departments, directing them to take steps to implement the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration in their dealings with the American public.

Specifically, the Dec. 8, 2009, directive called for executive departments and agencies to:

1. Publish government information online

2. Improve the quality of government information

3. Create and institutionalize a culture of open government

4. Create an enabling policy framework for open government

The directive also set specific deadlines to get some of this work done. By Feb. 6, 2010, for example, each agency was to have launched its own open government webpage. The administration also was going to set up an Open Government Dashboard, where citizens could peruse each agency's open government plan, as well as other information.

A recent visitor to the dashboard would have found the vast majority of the 29 departments listed to have met expectations in the four key areas: posted three high-value data sets, assigned a high-level senior official to data integrity, launched an open government webpage with all the required elements, and incorporated mechanisms for public feedback on that page.

Some departments already are far ahead of schedule, both in terms of deadlines and content.

The U.S. Department of Transportation site, for example, already has posted a draft of its "open government plan," which isn't due until April 7, and is seeking feedback from the public through its "citizen engagement tool." It has also made available three data sets from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration rating 4,200 lines of tires, child safety seats and the performance of new cars in crash and rollover tests.

The website also features detailed information on how to file a Freedom of Information Act request, as well as a blog by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube.

While still a work in progress, for sure, we find it refreshing that the Obama administration is following through on its commitment to instill a culture of openness and collaboration between the federal government and the American people.

The fact that we are even having this discussion today is a testament to what Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, refers to as a "sea change in culture" in Washington.

A sea change that certainly is long overdue.

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