Somewhere in the murky background of the Penn State scandal is a proven fact that must not be lost in the lurid coverage of the allegations. That is the absolute travesty of the University’s total exemption from Pennsylvania’s data practices laws, weak as they may be at the core.
Access to government information definitely lacks the potential to capture headlines or public outcry that is evident in the American public’s absorption with a sex scandal. Still, this blatant threat must not be dismissed as incidental. Instead, the arrogance of the University and its commitment to avoiding public disclosure put a public face on an issue that is as implicit as it is insidious.
Though the concepts of transparency and open government are vague ideals that fall trippingly from the tongues of public officials and voters alike – the fact is the people’s right to know is fragile at best, constantly vulnerable to outrageous threats from those forces, individual and institutional, that consider themselves – and are too often considered by the public – above the law.
In some ways, the threats are of greatest concern closer to home. At the federal level it’s about agencies and effective advocacy coalitions that keep the bright light shining on the workings of the massive federal government. At the state level, more so at the local level, it’s officials, schools, sports teams, nonprofits and religious institutions that are part of the fabric of everyday life that feel free to conceal public information, to make decisions behind closed doors, to declare some vague right of exclusion from the law.
And who is there to monitor, much less challenge, what is ingrained arrogance in the institutions and the individuals? Does the public really care – until an atrocity such as Penn State reminds us all that open government is a value that demands vigilance and a broad constituency for whom the right is as basic as other rights which, though they may be easier to articulate, are no less at the absolute core of this democracy.