OXFORD — Our country has been built on the bedrock principle that unalienable rights can't be transferred to someone else nor surrendered except by the person who possesses them and the conviction that powers of governing are derived from the people.
Those unalienable rights included in the First Amendment — freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petitioning government with grievances — form the cornerstone of all freedoms we enjoy.
But the road to equality and basic human rights has been long and hard and comes at a high price paid by people who fought for them.
Like-minded people have joined together to form social movements to gain the clout of power to fight for their rights — to vote, women's rights, civil rights, labor, the choice to terminate a pregnancy, gay rights.
Around the world today people are still risking violent and brutal retaliation to gain simple human rights, liberty, freedom of expression, a free press and rights for women living in oppressed societies.
Political dissidents and reporters who challenge governments often are beaten, jailed or killed because they pull back the veil of secrecy and report the truth.
The conviction that a free flow of information is essential to protecting human rights led to including an article stating this principle in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The importance of the principle of the public's right to know thus was linked with the broader scope of rights for people and the duty of governments to provide information.
This battle to protect the public's right to know has been ongoing since then as the freedom of information movement began to take shape in this country and has now spread around the world. We are still engaged in a fight against the forces of secrecy at all levels of government.
The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that secrecy in government is essentially antidemocratic. There are those in positions of power in government, however, who forget that their power comes from the people to whom they are accountable. Some forget that their job includes being responsible to the citizens.
Despite the laws in place to further open government at the federal and state level, citizens who need to know about government decisions too often are left in the dark.
There are many ways secrecy can be fostered and the public's right to know thwarted. You attend a public meeting to learn about policies and issues that affect you and your family, but find not enlightenment but a gathering that is a mere formality and a slight nod to transparency because your public servants zip through agenda items without discussion or debate and simply vote.
You leave none the wiser because issues apparently have been discussed and decisions made prior to the public meeting.
Technology makes it easy to get around the Open Meetings Act — text messaging, e-mails, use of cell phones. Officials also discuss public business over coffee or a meal or one-on-one with members of a board to avoid the quorum requirement to discuss business only in a public meeting.
But these are all violations of the law.
What consequences do members of an agency or board face if they violate the law? The fine for a violation in Mississippi is only $100, and taxpayers pay it when someone violates the law — not the violator.
A much better enforcement approach is Virginia's penalty of up to $1,000 for the first violation and up to $2,500 for the second.
Mississippi's small fine sends a message that this is not a serious matter. Yet, it is quite serious.
The statement of principle in the Open Meetings Act is clear: "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of Mississippi that the formation and determination of public policy is public business and shall be conducted at open meetings except as otherwise provided herein."
The Public Records statement of principle is equally clear: "It is the policy of this state that public records shall be available for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this chapter; furthermore, providing access to public records is a duty of each public body."
It is a duty to provide access to public records. Either that message hasn't been received in many quarters or it's being ignored.
If you make a request for a public record, save up your patience because you'll need it. Expect to encounter delays although records should be produced as promptly as possible. It should be a routine part of a public employee's job to provide these records when asked. We need a shorter response time than the current 14 working days.
Save your money because it could cost you a lot. Although the law says only actual costs can be charged, the charges can mount. There is no set standard for what an agency can charge. There should be. Using high fees for search and copy costs to discourage requests for records goes against the spirit of open government.
In many other states records are being put online which saves time for records custodians and provides information people need. Mississippi agencies lag behind other states in online databases.
A wall of secrecy, in fact, stands between you and your government as solid and effective in hiding information as the Berlin Wall was in separating East and West Germany. The people finally tore that wall down. That's what citizens need to do with the wall of secrecy shrouding all levels of government — demolish it.
Easy to say. Hard to do. So the alternative is to chip away a little at a time. The more people who join in the battle to protect the public's right to know, the closer we can come to tearing down those walls.
Citizens who demand that people in government be more forthcoming about the public's business can get their attention. Don't discount the clout a citizens' group can have. Take a look at what private citizens are doing around the country at this Web site: http://www.sunshinereview.org.
Perhaps you'll be inspired to join the fight. It's frustrating and progress is slow, but history tells us that as one judge put it in an access case, democracies die behind closed doors. The fight is that important.
Jeanni Atkins is an associate professor in the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media and executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information.
On the Net:
Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information: http://www.mcfoi.org