Sunshine vital in a democratic society

Jay Bender is the holder of the Reid H. Montgomery Chair in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina and the attorney for the S.C. Press Association.

When the first South Carolina Freedom of Information Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1971, the bill stated that "The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner…." The purpose of this openness is to allow citizens to "be advised of the performance of public officials… the decisions…reached and…the formulation of public policy."

These findings make sense. The promise of democracy is hollow if the people are precluded from learning of governmental activity, and it is clear in the very first provision of the South Carolina Constitution that the political power of the state resides in the people.

Yet, as we observe National Sunshine Week and the principle of "government in the sunshine," we are daily confronted by those who have been elected or employed to operate our government for us, who disregard the mandate of the law in order to hide their activities from the public.

Speaking of not appearing in the language of the law, city and county councils, school boards and other public bodies routinely go into closed session stating as the reason "personnel matters" or "contractual matters" even though those terms do not appear in the law and the Attorney General has issued numerous opinions objecting to the practice.

Newspapers were instrumental in obtaining passage of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act in 1972 and the adoption of amendments strengthening the law since. Newspapers have committed significant resources to mount challenges to government secrecy both in the courts and in the pages of the papers. Editors and publishers in these trying economic straits ask regularly if they can any longer afford these battles. And what if newspapers no longer champion open government?

We will not have government in the sunshine. In fact, we won't have government by the light of a single cell flashlight. And then, what will our democracy look like? Is it too harsh for your taste for me to say that cockroaches and corrupt government thrive in the dark?

Should you care about government in the sunshine? Only if you believe in democracy.