The students I teach at the University of Montana often show up with a powerful assumption: If there is some piece of information out there, Google can find it. It’s an understandable belief for 19-year-olds who have grown up in a world where ubiquitous connection to the internet and easy access to vast reams of webpages is expected.
But for all those Wikipedia pages and Wayback Machines, there are countless documents that you, as a Montanan, have a constitutional right to see and you won’t find them no matter how many pages of search results you click on. That information is sitting in your county courthouse or the state agency in Helena. It is being discussed at the city council or at the local school board meeting.
And that is sort of the point of Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week runs from March 10-16 this year and is put together by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Its goal is pretty straightforward: highlight and promote transparency in government.
But transparency itself is sort of a strange word. The Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” The idea that the best way to keep the government representing all of us was for all of us to be able to see its workings, to contribute to its operation.
The Montanans who gathered to write our state constitution in 1972 knew and believed in this idea, incorporating two rights into the new document — the public’s right to know and its right to participate.
Donald Foster, a Lewistown Independent who served as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention stressed that these two rights were to serve the public, saying during the deliberations, “[T]he citizens of the state will expect to participate in agency decisions prior to the time the agency makes up its mind .... It is also a commitment at the level of fundamental law to seek structures, rules and procedures that maximize the access of citizens to the decision-making institutions of state government.” For that participation to count, the public needs to know about the government’s work and the issues at stake.
For nearly 50 years, Montana has stressed public participation and the transparency that makes that possible.
But these rights are fragile and in need in constant attention and defense. One misinformed county clerk or nervous school board member or one agency demanding money to hire a lawyer to review the document a member of the public requested could make those rights and the idea of transparent government mere words on a four-decades-old paper.