Public records protect citizens from corruption

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees our freedoms of speech, religion, the press, assembly and to take grievances to government officials.

It’s the No. 1 item in our Bill of Rights, and in priority, in the minds of many Americans.

And yet, Texas’ State Board of Education on Thursday voted to restrict students’ knowledge of this key assertion of our personal freedoms. Board members who voted against it particularly didn’t want students to learn that freedom of religion prevents the government from favoring one religion over others.

At the same time, public officials across the nation have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn laws that require public knowledge of their decisions. The officials want to be able to meet and decide public policy behind closed doors.

This is the atmosphere in which we celebrate Sunshine Week, a commemoration of individuals’ right to know what their government officials are doing and how they are using taxpayers’ money.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Week in 2005 to highlight the need to keep the light of public knowledge shining on government officials. The obvious goal of such knowledge is to maintain honesty and accountability.

Eastern New Mexico residents know all too well that many officials prefer not to be accountable. They and their peers across the country, like so many cockroaches, seek to scurry away from the light and do their deeds under cover of darkness.

It’s a problem across the country.

An Arizona school district recently sued to try to prevent the public from requesting public information such as budgets.

Several state legislatures have tried to pass laws blocking access to police records, including 911 tapes, even though such records repeatedly are used to bring about changes ranging from the placement of stop signs to changes in emergency procedures — not to mention the many times those records have exposed officials who broke the law or sought special dispensation when caught driving drunk or committing other improper acts.

News media take very seriously their roles of watchdog and public informant. But many of the valuable uses of public information laws have been made by private residents and community groups who seek to protect taxpayers from malfeasance, and their neighbors from public dangers.

The work of these people, especially in the face of opposition by public officials and their employees, is nothing short of heroic. And these are the people that this year’s Sunshine Week seeks to honor.