“What the people don’t know WILL hurt them.”
That statement has appeared on this page for more than 50 years. It’s more than a motto. It is a concise summation of what happens when government is allowed to conduct the public’s business behind closed doors.
Secrecy serves to breed suspicion on the part of the public and undermines elected officials’ ability to govern effectively. On the other hand, transparency in government lends greater credibility to governing bodies. As the late U.S. Justice Louis Brandeis once famously noted: “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”
Today is the start of National Sunshine Week, and in the following days we will bring you opinion columns and editorials that will spotlight the public’s right to access important news and information about government that might otherwise go unnoticed. The public’s access to its government, whether it be to public records or meetings of governing bodies, is essential to protect a free society. That’s why Tennessee’s lawmakers looked directly to the state’s Constitution for guidance in drafting the state’s Sunshine Law in 1974.
The opening line of the Sunshine Law simply states: “The General Assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
The Sunshine Law goes hand-in-hand with the state’s Public Records Act, originally passed by legislators in 1957, which requires governmental entities to grant full access to public records to every citizen of Tennessee. The measure directs the courts to construe the act broadly “so as to give the fullest possible access to public records.”
Every Tennessean has a right to obtain such information under the state’s open records law. These records are supposed to be open to the public — no questions asked.