Graham: You have the power to shine light on government
I know it is hard to believe sometimes, but our government was established on the idea that it should not operate in the shadows, but that the sun should shine on its actions.
Our founding fathers set up guidelines in the Constitution to make sure the press was protected as a watchdog of the government. But they also armed an even more powerful entity: its citizens.
In discussing the creation of our democracy, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1804, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth.”
So while journalists serve the public (real journalists that is; you can tell them apart from “fake” ones by whether they are working in the public’s best interests or their own), Americans have always had the ability to access how public officials are acting in their name.
As a reminder of how we all have the right to the information on what our government is doing, Sunshine Week was established in 2005 as a national initiative led by the American Society of News Editors. Its stated purpose is to “educate the public about the importance of open government and the problems involved with excessive and unnecessary secrecy.”
So what kind of information are we talking about? Foia.gov says a public records request can be made for any federal agency record, and you are not required to indicate the reasons you are seeking it. So, for example, you can request documents related to immigration enforcement and unlicensed drivers, or you can ask for the FBI’s file on you, if one exists.
There are exemptions to the law that protect information for reasons such as personal privacy, national security and law enforcement. So you will not be able to get information that interferes with an open law enforcement case; personal information including Social Security numbers will remain out of your reach, and business trade secrets will not be handed over.
If you are seeking access to records from any federal agency, you can file a Freedom of Information Act request by going to www.FOIA.gov. Do some research before making a request, and remember the federal government does not have a central office to handle FOIA requests, so you may have to make requests from several agencies to get everything you want.
For state records, the Arizona Public Records Law “mandates that all public records be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours,” according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition. For more information on the state’s public records law, go to www.azoca.gov.
Prescott residents who want to make a records request from the city can go to its website or directly to prescott.nextrequest.com.
Remember as we celebrate Sunshine Week, it is all about you. Flex your muscles; exercise your power. Hold your public officials and entities accountable for their actions. Let the sunshine in.
Doug Graham is Community editor for The Daily Courier. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.