By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Gas prices have the public’s attention. Senate Bill 2289, which has been signed by Gov. Haley Barbour and becomes state law July 1, does not.
That’s not surprising. The pain at the pump is real, tangible. Access to government meetings and records, which will be bolstered in SB 2289, isn’t the hot topic in the lunchroom.
So it is with many First Amendment freedoms – speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. They are seen as lofty, distant, conceptual. They are pie-in-the-sky words engraved on courthouse walls. Too, when the freedoms are enforced, the results often seem absurd.
Take the case of tiny Westboro Church. That’s the Kansas group where the pastor and all five members, many of whom are his kinfolk, have decided American soldiers have died in combat because God is punishing America for its increasing tolerance of homosexuality. The group, which uses Baptist in its name but has no known affiliation with any other church, creates furor by showing up at soldiers’ funerals with banners and posters proclaiming its views.
Efforts to pass laws to halt the pickets wound up at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 two weeks ago that the Constitution protects the Westboro folks.
People didn’t like the ruling or understand why the court’s most liberal and most conservative justices agreed to shield the picketers. Court protection for people doing despicable things always results in strong public reaction – comments that the justices must be as wacky as those who exploit the grief of military families. But it’s such far-out cases, along with little-noticed legislation such as SB 2289, that serve as a check on the incremental growth of government power.
This is Sunshine Week, an observance promoted annually by a coalition of press and public institutions. The purpose is to increase awareness of our fundamental freedom to be self-governed, also embodied as a constitutional mandate. We can’t be self-governing without knowing what managers of public policies and programs are doing. We can’t know without access.
So when do such matters become practical? When do people care about open meetings and records?
Again, not complicated. As with gas prices, it’s when the issue becomes personal.
When a homeowner learns a lot down the street has been rezoned for a juke joint, the homeowner cares about why there was no notice, no opportunity to be heard. When a parent learns a school zone has been changed, the parent wants to know why. When a property owner hears others are paying taxes at a lower rate, the property owner wants to check it out.
Mississippi law gives strong support to a general policy of open access to meetings and records, but enforcement has been a challenge.
SB 2289 changes that. Aside from scattered municipal ordinances that were never enforced, Mississippi has never before had what the law creates – a civil fine for records custodians and meeting participants who flagrantly violate laws designed to guarantee public access.
Coupled with the Legislature’s decision three years ago to empower the Mississippi Ethics Commission to review access questions from the public – via a free, one-page form available on the Internet – this state has taken major steps increasing access.
The new law is not designed to punish officials for innocent mistakes or even for delays caused by a good-faith effort to discern what the law requires. All it really does is make a statement to custodians of records and those who vote on whether discussions should be in open sessions. That statement is: Take access seriously.
Specific provisions of sunshine laws can be tricky, but an excellent measuring stick is to ask who is helped by denying requests to see records or attend meetings. If it’s in the public’s interest to keep information secret – such as when police are assembling witness lists or a city board is debating how much to offer on a land purchase – then the law allows closure. But if closure is a mere a preference and especially when it’s just a shield from accountability, Mississippi law demands openness.
It’s too much to believe that access to government records and meetings will ever have the prominence of events such as protesters flapping posters about what God presumably “hates” while a family buries a loved one. It’s not too much, however, to realize that as with other freedoms, access laws must be stretched, tested and enforced to make government work as designed.
Sunshine laws are practical laws. We don’t need them every day, but when we need them, they must be there.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.