Freedoms need a bit of sunshine

Freedoms need a bit of sunshine
I'm about to talk about something that's very important. And I wouldn't be surprised if, at first, you'll just shrug after reading the first paragraph or two and stop reading because you'll think it really doesn't pertain to you.

That's where you are wrong.

I'm going to talk (okay, write) about something that we should all hold near and dear these days.

It's called Sunshine Week. The focus of this week, which begins March 12, is your right to know. It is a week of discussion on the public's right of access to government information.

Don't stop reading yet.

If you think we have nothing to be concerned about here in South Dakota, think again. Read Chuck Baldwin's column printed elsewhere on this page.

He does an elegant job of pointing out an alarming trend: Despite the guarantees of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (you know, freedom of press, speech, etc.) there's an awful lot of public business going on that we never hear about.

Sunshine Sunday was begun several years ago by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, and this is an expansion of that effort.

Nationally, this special week is being spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Library Association, and the Radio Television News Directors Association, with grant funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Many other organizations are involved, almost all related to journalism.

In South Dakota, efforts are being guided by South Dakotans for Open Government, with strong support from the South Dakota Newspaper Association's First Amendment Committee, the Freedom Forum, the South Dakota Library Association and the South Dakota Association of Broadcasters.

By now, many of you are probably convinced Sunshine Week is some sort of self-serving stunt dreamed up by the print and broadcast news media.

Do we have a vested interest in being able to publish the public's business? You bet we do.

And so should you. The public's business is, after all, your business.

And, no doubt, a little education spearheaded by the media on the freedoms we're supposed to enjoy as a society certainly can't hurt.

I mention this because just last week I stumbled across a brief news story that is, in the very least, troubling indeed.

Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (in case you're included in this group, those guarantees are freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances.

That in itself, is cause for concern. But the Associated Press also reports that more than half of those same people can name at least two members of the Simpsons cartoon family, according to a survey.

The study, by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

There's other bothersome news. Open access to government information and records always has been important, and we see that reflected in our Constitution, as well as laws from the beginning of our nation.

But now, across the country, we're seeing efforts to limit our access to information � because of concerns both about privacy and terrorism. We also see a backlash against the news media:

? Over a third of the 100,000 students questioned in a recent survey felt the First Amendment went "too far" in guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, worship and assembly.

? Only half felt newspapers should be allowed to publish stories that did not have the government's approval.

In the coming week, Sunshine Week will be a major topic of discussion by newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets across the country.

It appears that this special week couldn't have arrived at a more crucial time.

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