The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ annual observance of “Sunshine Week” starts Sunday and runs through next Saturday, March 16. For many years now, the two organizations have encouraged newspapers and other media across the country to celebrate “access to public information and what it means for you and your community.” In essence, it’s a celebration -- often laced with cautionary tales -- of everyone’s, not just the press’, right to the freedom of information, especially that held by the government.
As Editor Martin L. Cahn, whose column at right touches on one aspect of this, often notes: the freedom of information enshrined in documents such as the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), is not just for those of us who work in the press -- it is for you.
It’s the public’s right to know that is being celebrated, not merely the press’ work on your behalf in that regard.
You have the right to view and even copy (at a reasonable rate) all types of public records. You have the right to expect open government meetings (with certain restrictions) and that public bodies only go behind closed doors for the right reasons and in the right manner.
Did you know, for example, that you have the right to walk into any law enforcement agency in South Carolina and ask for incident reports for the last 14 days, and that those law enforcement agencies must allow you to view those reports without question -- you don’t have to identify yourself and you don’t have to give a reason for wanting the reports. It doesn’t matter if you’re involved in any of the reported incidents or not.
They have to let you see them.
They can redact certain information and they can charge you a reasonable fee if you ask for copies to take home, but they can’t deny your request. That’s the law.
You have the right to walk into Camden City Hall, Bethune or Elgin town hall, and the Kershaw County Government Center and ask to see most documents and records, from meeting minutes to budgets.
So, during Sunshine Week 2019, we urge you to exercise your rights. See what happens and let us know.
In the meantime, remember that we here at the Chronicle-Independent are working on your behalf by attending meetings you can’t get to in this busy world, and obtaining public documents that focus sunshine on what might be otherwise hidden public business.
Yes, we do this so we can write stories and sell newspapers. It’s also our calling, and we’ll keep doing it for you.