by Evelyn Pyburn
I can remember thinking, as a student, learning about the issue of public information and thinking that so obvious is its benefit, that in no way would any reasonable person ever oppose it. But then, that was a time when I also believed that most adults were reasonable. It was a time too, when I concluded that our freedom would always be secure, because who wouldn’t want freedom?
This is why you don’t put youngsters in charge of things — we are really quite ignorant about the world. We truly do trust that being grown-up means to be rational. What a trauma it is for a child to learn the truth of that! A great deal that troubles so many young people today is in trying to make sense of the adult world where they are told one thing and watch so many of their role models do quite the opposite.
I still don’t understand people who spurn freedom in favor of government control over our lives. What exactly do they see as a utopian society? What if they aren’t the dictator-in-charge, what kind of existence do they imagine for themselves and everyone else? No one has ever answered that question, so I remain puzzled and quite dubious about how reasonable many people are.
But for those who want freedom, be assured it isn’t possible without open, transparent government at every level. If you believe in being able to vote for those who represent you, how can you possibly imagine making an intelligent vote, if you do not KNOW? You have to KNOW all things – what the issues are; what the various points of view are about the issues; the history of those issues and how past decisions came about; the position of the candidate for whom you are considering voting; and how that candidate voted in the past. If you don’t know all those things, you cannot vote responsibly. If you have been denied that information, you have been denied your right to vote – and most importantly you are being denied freedom.
As a representative of the people – elected, appointed or hired — you have no right to know things any more so than do your constituents. You are not meant to be privileged in your knowledge, although it would not be surprising to learn that you are often urged not to divulge information by colleagues or attorneys or others seeking privilege. It is the way of power-mongering — those who control the flow of information, control.
The only reason a public official would want to deny the public information is because they know that what they are doing is not acceptable. It is to know that, if your constituents knew the whole truth about an issue they would object, push for change and undoubtedly find someone else to represent them.
That is what the Montana Constitution demands – full public disclosure. Montana is said to have one of the best and strongest public information laws in the country, but sadly when it comes to evaluations about which states have the best open, public information, Montana ranks very low. That is not the fault of our law, but the fault of those who have pledge to abide by our Constitution.
The only exception to information being public is when it involves personal issues – an exception that is quite often abused by many public officials. Personal information is about what is “personal” to a public employee or perhaps even a citizen, such as health issues or marital status, or religious preferences, or where they are going on vacation. Public officials quite often, most erroneously extend that cover to things that are not really personal – such as job performance or criminal conduct.
There have been legal challenges regarding just how “personal” a public servant’s job performance really is, and not surprisingly the courts have concluded that employee performance is very important information to the employer – ie. the taxpayers – we have a right- to-KNOW. Job performance reviews, for example, often closed to the public, should be open to the public. Or, when a public official attempts to hide charges of wrong doing by an employee, they really have no authority to do that, because that employee is an employee of the public.
Much of what the government does often involves the gathering of information regarding businesses, in the process of regulating or licensing or controlling in one manner or another, which not surprisingly can often lead to abuse and reasons for the public to ask questions. But when a citizen asks for the information, they are usually put off with the claim that the government cannot release that information because it is a privacy concern of the citizen. Balderdash!
It may have been private information at one time, but the government violated that citizen’s rights in coercing the information. Once the government has the information, it becomes public information! Personal privacy has already been violated. The government probably had no right to acquire it, and without it the government would not have been able to over-reach with regulations which undoubtedly continue to violate the citizen’s rights. That’s one of the things that happens when one right is violated; it almost always, inexorably, leads to another violation by the government – from one citizen’s right to privacy, to another’s right to know.
Our rights – and most especially our right- to -know – are amazingly dynamic in the protection they provide for citizens against the aggression of government. It is well worth everyone’s time and energy to make sure the right-to-know is adhered to from the lowest levels to the highest levels of government – it doesn’t matter your political leaning – unless of course you really don’t want freedom at all.