by Lowman S. Henry | March 14, 2005

The time has come to reclaim our ‘Right to Know’

It would seem to be a no-brainer. Any citizen, especially a reporter, surely must have access to just any public document they want to see, except perhaps for personnel records or on-going legal proceedings, just by asking.

Not in the People’s Republic of Pennsylvania. The Associated Press recently coordinated a project whereby it organized newspapers around the state to visit a wide range of municipal, school district, county, and state offices and make what would seem to be routine requests for documents of various types.

The results, as detailed in a series of three articles currently running in Harrisburg’s Patriot-News, are chilling. It seems despite an effort several years ago to update and strengthen Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, governmental bodies at all levels are denying access to what are – or should be – public records.

Given the fact newspapers have a constitutionally guaranteed right, you know, “free press” and all, what chance to the rest of us have if governmental entities are willing to block the flow of information to those who buy ink by the barrel and paper by the ton? It shows the degree to which some elected officials are willing to go to shield public information from public view. Which of course, makes you wonder why?

The chief offender is the legislature itself. Various skirmishes have broken out over the years between media organizations and the General Assembly over their policy of refusing to allow expense account information to be opened to public view. The fact they even have a choice in the matter bespeaks a great failing in the structure of Pennsylvania government.

Simply put, what is paid for by our tax dollars should be open for public view. It is commonly accepted that personnel records, legal matters, and real estate dealings should be exempted from that broad statement. But even those exclusions should be reconsidered. The Patriot-News points out, for example, that Florida makes personnel records available for public view. Why not here? We pay their salaries, why should we not know how our employees are performing? If we cannot even get expense information on our elected officials, however, getting information on public employees remains a distant goal.

This being a municipal election year, the issue of openness should be on the agenda in each and every race. After all, if elected officials are unwilling to make public records available to the news media and the citizens they are elected to govern, then their very fitness for public office becomes suspect. Elected officials set policy, and the bureaucracies they sit atop will act according to the climate they create. If elected officials demand openness, then the rest of the government will follow.

But all too often it seems elected officials are the problem, not the solution. Return again to the example of our legislators refusing to make their expense accounts open to the public. Since they make the laws, how do we bring about change?

There is a somewhat well-known document, drafted in Philadelphia by one Thomas Jefferson back in 1776 that set forth the philosophical basis for bringing about governmental change. In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson talked about our unalienable rights and wrote: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In other words, when government ceases to protect our rights, and instead takes them from us, we the people are compelled to reclaim the powers we have delegated to said government, and then make the changes necessary to right the wrong. To that end, the only real way to secure our right to know in Pennsylvania is to amend the state’s constitution with tough, new, open records provisions.

That is easier said than done, since short of a constitutional convention such amendments must be approved by the very General Assembly that is abrogating our rights. So, perhaps the time has come for people throughout Penn’s woods to demand such a gathering and this time lay the “Foundation of such Principles” that will secure our rights. It may seem like drastic action, but the first step on the road to tyranny is to deny people their right to know.