EDITORIAL: Lawsuits that attempt to intimidate government watchdogs an 'absurd practice'

York Dispatch
  • Some governmental bodies are suing individuals who request information under FOI laws.
  • It's a chilling way to to discourage attempts to access public information.
  • Government officials who file such suits insist they are operating in good faith.

They’re called sunshine laws for a reason.

The thinking is basic.

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A government operates best when its business is done openly and publicly, for all to see.

In other words, our representatives should let the sun shine in when doing the people’s work.

Unfortunately, not all of our elected officials are comfortable with complete transparency.

Some governmental bodies, including school districts, municipalities and state agencies, are now suing individuals (and organizations, and journalists) who request public records under Freedom of Information laws.

The suits ask judges to declare that the sought-after information not be covered under public records laws and name those seeking the records as defendants.

It’s a chilling way to discourage attempts to access public information. Even if judges rule against the agency, the requester needs to cough up legal fees.

It’s obviously an attempt intimidate government watchdogs — which exactly what the FOI laws are intended to combat.

EDITORIAL: Our right to know matters

It’s just a blatant new way for governments to hide or delay disclosure of embarrassing, controversial or legally sensitive information.

“This practice essentially says to a records requester, ‘File at your own peril,” University of Kansas journalism professor Jonathan Peters said. “These laws are an absurd practice and noxious to open government.”

Government's take: Now, some government officials will have a vastly different take, insisting they are acting in good faith. They say it’s best to have courts determine whether records should be released when legal obligations are unclear — for instance when the documents may be shielded by an exemption or privacy law.

In addition, some governmental bodies have chafed at the costs of fulfilling FOI requests, which can be substantial.

There is little doubt that some gadflies have used the FOI laws to submit frivolous, and sometimes onerous, requests, just in an effort to annoy or provoke governmental officials.

Those incidents are unfortunate, but they don’t justify these latest attempts at scare tactics meant to dissuade watchdogs.

In addition, in our current political environment, some government officials now likely feel emboldened to attack sunshine laws. That's because many of the FOI requests are made by journalists, who rightly hold government officials and entities accountable — and who are often vilified by those seeking to minimize the Constitutionally protected power of the Fourth Estate.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that journalists and news organizations are our best defense against government corruption and overreach.

We must hold our elected officials accountable, and FOI requests play a vital role in doing just that.

That’s why we must all be vigilant in the fight for increased governmental transparency.

Any attempts to weaken sunshine laws must be met head on.

Otherwise, the taxpayers risk finding themselves left completely in the dark.