Sunshine Day 2012: Barbara Petersen stresses public’s responsibility to demand openness

Barbara Petersen described the inextricable relationship between an open government and the foundation of democracy during her keynote speech that opened Sunshine Day observances at Elon University March 14.

Sunshine Day unites government officials, journalists and advocates for open government to highlight the public’s right to oversee government activity.

“The right to know is not a partisan issue claimed by one party with the exclusion of all others,” Petersen said. “It is a core principle, the bedrock of any democracy.”

She encouraged citizens to demand access to public documents in order to establish their own understanding of government practices. She aligned Sunshine Day observances with the mission of James Madison, a key figure in the ratification of the First Amendment.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” Petersen said.

Open records is synonymous with access to knowledge and the development of a society able to govern itself and maintain civil liberties and freedoms, she said.

Open records allow citizens to know to what extent elected officials are fulfilling promises, addressing citizens’ interests and assessing taxes fairly. The week’s observance champions the people’s plight and public’s right to oversee the government, she said. It holds the government accountable for its actions.

Although government officials have developed webpages to communicate government actions, Petersen criticized the platform and frame in which the information is presented.

Some of the transparency websites are often hard to navigate and often misleading because they lack background information. Governments select how to frame the information and how the information is delivered. The Web content provides subsets of data, not all of the data, she said.

“To know that we got $5,000 means what to whom?” Petersen asked. “And yet they claim they’re transparent.”

Understanding how money is spent is more significant than knowing what amount is spent, according to Petersen. It is vital to know that the laws allow the public to demand access to all information not legally exempt from public disclosure, Petersen said.

Regardless of developments in technology, Petersen identified the current conflicts as issues prevalent since the early ’90s.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,'” she said.

While arguments regarding access to email entered discussions during the previous decade, today access to tweets dominate conversations. Nevertheless, the principle of each debate is constant.

“It provides us with the information critical to govern ourselves, information we need to make critical decisions about how we want to live, even where we want to live,” Petersen said.

Discussions regarding access to information are relevant to the entire nation and are not entangled with specific political parties.

“Robust debates about the proper size of government at times gets over heated, but one fact remains central and true,” she said. “Big or small, it is our government. We pay for it we choose its leadership, we have every right, we have a duty, to make sure power serves us all and strengthens our society as we pursue, day in and day out, a perfect union.”

Petersen is president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation and a graduate of the University of Missouri- Columbia and Florida State University College of Law.

— by Melissa Kansky ’13