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Public is happy when government is open

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

James Madison

Pioneers who become trailblazers in uncharted territories take a leap of faith the faint-hearted would shrink from, spurred by the power of their convictions spurs that leap of faith.

James Madison, whose March 16 birthday is celebrated as National Freedom of Information Day during Sunshine Week, could not have envisioned the global community in which we live today when he wrote the First Amendment.

Yet Madison’s confidence in people’s ability to govern themselves if empowered with information they need contributed to the great leap of faith that became the Constitution.

That planted seed grew in the hearts and minds of people over centuries that followed, and today that seed is bearing fruit around the world.

Pioneers who embarked on the freedom of information movement, spawned in the dark days of tyranny that rolled across Europe during World War II, belong in the company of visionaries like Madison and the other Founding Fathers.

They believed that the free flow of information was essential to block efforts of tyrants to rule their people with iron fists and crush their rights under the brutal wielding of clubs and guns.

Organizing people and building networks, they formed an army of like-minded advocates and activists whose faith in transparency in government fueled their efforts to get state freedom of information laws enacted.

Defeats in legislatures around the country only served to strengthen their will to continue to toil in the trenches, sometimes for decades, before getting open meetings and public records laws passed.

Today there are myriad organizations and broad-based diverse coalitions dedicated to fighting government secrecy and making sure the public’s business is conducted in an open and accountable manner.

In greater numbers than ever before, citizens are involved in government transparency efforts, and are hailed as FOI heroes and celebrated for their work.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet Project and the Monitor Institute, funded by the Knight Foundation, found a potential link between well-being and quality of life of citizens and government transparency.

“Residents who said in the surveys that their local government was good at sharing information were more likely to feel satisfied with a host of other aspects of life,” the Pew survey report said.

FOI pioneers would not be surprised by this finding.

The people in countries now fighting for open and accountable government and democratic systems would not be surprised either. Their quality of life deteriorated under censorship and control.

As people celebrate the 260th anniversary of Madison’s birth with Sunshine Week and National Freedom of Information Day, we should remember to also celebrate the FOI pioneers and the multitude of FOI heroes.

Because they acted on Madison’s conviction that they must “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives” and make government more open and accountable to the people, steady progress in achieving that goal has been made.

We have much to celebrate today along with the freedom fighters in other countries blazing new trails for democracy and open and participative societies.

But the battles to protect the public’s right to know will never end.

If you believe freedom of information and government transparency are worth fighting for, join the FOI army.

Jeanni Atkins is associate professor at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media and executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information: www.mcfoi.org She can be contacted at iatkins@olemiss.edu.

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