The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Justice Hugo Black 1886-1971
“The mark of a truly civilized man is confidence in the strength and security derived from the inquiring mind. Justice Felix Frankfurter 1882-1965
These words of two Justices who served similar eras on the United States Supreme Court form the bookends of this post. They frame my “thoughts while thinking” about next week, March13-19, celebrated throughout the nation as Sunshine Week 2016.
Focus of the eleventh annual recognition of Sunshine Week reflects Justice Black’s emphasis on a free press. In this construct, government is the source and a free press is the necessary medium of access to information by and about our government. Traditionally, these essentials have been the emphasis of Sunshine Week, principles that have shaped my annual Sunshine Week thoughts and posts.
This year, for a mix of reasons, my thoughts keep turning to Frankfurter’s reference to the other essential, the inquiring mind. (I find consolation for my oversight in the fact that Frankfurter also observed that “wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late…”)
To give credit, it was local activist Rich Neumeister who struck me with his passionate defense of the “inquiring mind” that fuels his lifelong embrace of the spirit of inquiry to effect change.
Rich was just one of several committed open government advocates who spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon sharing their thoughts and experiences; they were the first interviewees in a fledgling video story of how and why the right to know matters. All had accepted an invitation to participate in an independent project with which I have the privilege of collaborating with Matt Ehling, President of Public Record Media.
The impetus of the project was to recognize the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); the strategy is to do so by “putting a face on” the right to know. To do this we are calling on people who represent the myriad facets and faces of how open government laws make a difference in real life. We will videotape and share their ideas, their recollections, their knowledge and their suggestions, then share those stories with Minnesotans as a way to spread that spirit of inquiry and thus inspire others to exercise their right to know.
What emerged from these first interviews was one unifying thought – that the life force of the right to know is the inquiring mind. It is the spirit of the individual who realizes the power of information that leads to change at the neighborhood or the national level.
It is our contention that, by using technology to share the experiences, perspectives and insights of these and other individuals we will celebrate not just the fact of open government but the power of inquiry itself.
On the one hand the focus is on the keys to implement the rights codified in FOIA and related legislation — sound policies, efficient bureaucracies, a free press, and a thoughtful approach to digital age challenges.
Still, the power of the right to know rests in the inquiring minds of individuals who place a priority on good information by and about the government. It is these inquisitive agents of change who breathe life into the right to know. They exercise that right by harnessing the power of information to improve their lives, their neighborhoods, their institutions.
In turn, they share their passion for inquiry and their knowledge of the channels of access, especially with young learners who too often know more about the how’s than the why’s of information access.