Closed-door government lacks key ingredient: us

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Government at all levels always leans toward conducting business behind closed doors. The reasons range from the ease of working out compromises to avoiding hurt feelings and political repercussions to making the process work faster.

The only problems — apart from its occasionally being illegal to conduct public business in private — are that it’s also undemocratic and unfair to the citizenry.

Each year at this time, the nation’s attention is called to “Sunshine Week” — a time when scholars, First Amendment activists, regular citizens and news media of all sizes focus attention on open-records laws and open-government practices. This year, that call to transparency comes with a nagging worry about attempts to close down public debate and public records — ironically by officials citing values of democracy and fairness.

I’ve little doubt that the nation’s founders preferred a knowledgeable, informed and engaged public. They had plenty of firsthand experience with the alternatives — Star Chambers and Privy Councils that secretly conducted trials, advised royalty and set policy out of public view. (See HBO’s current mini-series, “John Adams.”)

What leads government officials high and low, then and now, to desire to operate behind closed doors and in private chats, out of sight and out of oversight? The answer is simple: Democracy is a messy, conflicting, argumentative, occasionally inefficient, and certainly challenging form of government. But civility, expediency and ease of operation are gravy, not goals, for our system of government.

Still, across the country, local government units like city councils and school boards have attempted to tidy up the process — but in the process, shutting down comment, disclosure and involvement. In recent years, for example:

  • A West Virginia school board tried to prevent critics from mentioning district employees by name or job title when speaking at a board meeting. In Oklahoma, it took a federal court ruling to overturn a similar law.

  • The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the right of local residents to videotape government meetings over official objections.

  • Mississippi officials ordered a local public-broadcasting cameraman out of a contentious water-association meeting.

  • The Los Angeles City Council adopted “rules of decorum” that, along with banning profanity, limit public speakers to one minute and require that comments be directed at the entire council, not just one official.

    There can seem a certain reasonableness to limiting public debate to avoid filibusters; to restricting personal comments to avoid flaring tempers; to requiring speakers to register in advance for scheduling ease. But all too often the effect, intended or not, is to preclude serious counter-arguments, to blunt frank criticism of elected or appointed officials, or to discourage public discourse.

    When public records are involved — particularly those in the courts and criminal justice system — we must remember they aren’t open merely to satisfy the curious.

    In repressive regimes, access to government information is among the first limitations imposed. It may be more than uncomfortable to have arrest records and “mug shots” available for public disclosure — but the alternative is a system where you or I may simply “disappear” into a draconian, closed system, leaving relatives and colleagues uncertain and afraid.

    Not each and every government record or conversation ought to be aired on C-Span or published in print or online. Certain kinds of personnel matters — where unproven charges may be investigated, for example — might well be examined initially in private so that making a claim is not akin to inflicting damage before the accused can respond. And for public officials whose lives really would be endangered by those they arrest or convict – no argument there.

    But the vast majority of what our government does is not a national or personal security matter. What it does on our behalf needs to be, and to remain, public – even if it stings, even if it means long nights listening to one side or another, or casting votes at risk of one’s reelection chances to try to keep public records true to their name.

    Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail:

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