It isn’t often that Montanans can say, “Thank you, Florida.” This time of year, however, the Big Sky owes the Sunshine State a tip of the cap.
Not because we envy the warmth of its spring (although it certainly is enviable in Montana in mid-March) or its renowned entertainment attractions (although Daytona and Orlando play roles in this story.)
Florida deserves our thanks because that state’s newspapers stood up against government secrecy and, by their example, inspired a national movement.
The year was 2002. Florida’s Legislature was primed to restrict access to a host of public records as a response to 9-11. Led by the Orlando Sentinel and its editor, Tim Franklin, Florida newspapers staged a one-day editorial effort to call attention to the assault on open government laws. They called it “Sunshine Sunday.”
Advocating on behalf of public access was nothing new to Franklin or the Sentinel. A year earlier, they had requested — and received — state autopsy records of NASCAR race driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. following his death at the 2001 Daytona 500. The Sentinel sought the records, which were available under the state’s “Sunshine Law,” so it could obtain an independent (in other words, a non-NASCAR) opinion on the cause of Earnhardt’s death.
The request spawned a veritable hurricane of opposition by NASCAR fans and Florida state lawmakers, who tried to thwart the Sentinel with protests and legislation.
A year later, with lawmakers making an even broader assault on the state’s open government laws, Franklin again stepped into the fray, encouraging his fellow editors to set aside their competitive nature for a day and join together to defend the public’s right to know. By 2005, “Sunshine Sunday” had grown from a one-day Florida effort into a week-long national push. In addition, new organizations formed to advocate for open government at state and federal levels.
Now, as then, journalists tend to lead the call to preserve the public’s right to know. Yet laws on open government are for all citizens, a fact reflected in the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline’s usage in recent years. In 2010, more than half of all the calls to the Hotline came from newspaper reporters. But fully one-third came from non-journalists concerned about their access to records, meetings and public process.
Another trend: the vast amount of Hotline calls involve questions or concerns with local governments — cities, towns, counties, school districts, local law enforcement and assorted local government boards. In other words, governing entities that are closest to citizens and, theoretically, most available to them.
On the positive side, cities, counties, school districts and district courts received high marks in Montana’s 2003 Public Records Audit. Some local governments have sought public access training for their employees. And the Montana Association of Counties includes a review of open government laws in its orientation of newly elected officials.
Even so, it’s appropriate to take time each year to advise citizens about their rights and remind government about its responsibilities.
And to thank Florida for a good idea.
(Ian Marquand lives in Missoula and is chair of the Montana FOI Hotline. The Hotline offers free, over-the-phone advice on open government issues through the Meloy Law Firm of Helena. Its phone number is (406) 442-8670.)