It's not a sexy topic nor one the average person cares much about. But a lack of access to public information is a real problem that is hurting us all. When government at any level denies or unduly restricts access to information, democracy suffers.
We join the national "Sunshine Week" initiative beginning today to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
And we're sad to say that the public's right to know is being obstructed far too often around Beaufort County and across South Carolina.
Freedom of Information requests are routinely denied for questionable reasons, and there's no recourse for denied parties other than hiring lawyers.
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Excessive fees are charged to lessen the likelihood that reporters and citizens can afford copies of public information.
Vaguely written parts of the state's open-records law are interpreted by governmental bodies in ways that allow them to deny access to information. And sometimes, even when information is turned over, important portions are redacted for no good, legal reason.
It's enough to leave any reporter or average Joe searching for public information -- information that they have every right to access -- pulling their hair out and spitting.
It's not just that important stories don't make it into the newspaper. It's that the public is left in the dark about how their government is working and how their dollars are being spent. It gives coverage to those who seek to abuse the public's trust, and it helps ensure that wrongdoing is never uncovered.
Indeed, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right in his oft-repeated comment that sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we really want to sniff out government corruption and clear it out, then we must require those in power to adhere to a high level of transparency and openness.
Unfortunately, we are headed in the opposite direction in the Palmetto State. Too often, our public bodies illegally conduct business in closed-door sessions. Judges close court proceedings and seal documents in Beaufort County without going through the required process. And two recent S.C. Supreme Court decisions have further undercut the public's right to know:
Without access to autopsy reports, similar telling information will not see the light of day, and the public will have to accept the government's version of events.
Fortunately, some state lawmakers are taking note of the erosion of government transparency.
Rep. Weston Newton, a Republican from Bluffton, has introduced three bills this legislative session to help turn the tide. The first would create an Office of Freedom of Information Act Review to determine whether requests for records were handled correctly. A second would require agendas for regular meetings of public bodies and also require that new items be added at least 24 hours in advance of meetings. And Newton's final bill would eliminate some of the exemptions that S.C. legislators currently enjoy under the state's open-records law. For example, some types of correspondence by lawmakers could be obtained via open-records requests.
We look forward to debate on those bills and hope that members of the public will demand that public bodies in South Carolina operate in the sunshine.