Public info laws need backbone

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Common criminals in Mississippi get more help accessing information and defending their legal rights than does the rare citizen who dares to seek public information.

Shoot someone in the head and you’re read Miranda rights upon your arrest. One of those rights, you are told, is legal counsel, even if you cannot afford it.

But what if you wanted to see a mayor’s publicly funded cell phone bill or how much money a county attorney makes or whether or not a city is funneling money from one public pocket into another?

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It’s all public information and you, as a citizen, have a right to see that information.

Unfortunately, and all too often, ignorance and arrogance form a stifling duo.

The ignorance is the most common obstacle — untrained or ill-informed public personnel who often don’t understand the law.

The arrogance is more rare, but can be seen when people attempt to hide information.

No problem. We have laws to protect a citizen’s right to information and openness.

Yes, we do. But fighting for your rights is a BYOL party — bring your own lawyer.

You’re out of luck if you aren’t independently wealthy or a member of the Mississippi Bar Association.

The Mississippi Open Meetings Law and Mississippi Public Records Act are intended to help protect citizens’ rights.

But the laws are toothless jellyfish when they really count and when issues are pressed.

Neither law has much in the way of “teeth” — no fixed penalties for violations. And neither is all that supportive either — since citizens must bring their own legal power.

Until those laws are modified to provide better deterrents and more accessible enforcement, access to public information continues to be at great risk. And that should worry us as much as the criminals walking the streets do.