Before there was Sunshine Week, there was Sunshine Sunday.
And here’s how Sunshine Sunday began. Just weeks after terrorist planes took down the World Trade Center and slammed into the Pentagon, legislators in Florida rushed to water down, even repeal, some of the state’s best-in-the-nation open government laws.
“Right after 9/11, in late 2001 and early 2002, during the legislative session in Florida, there was a massive rush to close down public access to public information and public meetings,” Tim Franklin recalled in a conversation ahead of Sunshine Week, March 15 to 21 this year. Back then, Franklin was editor of the Orlando Sentinel. After a career that included editorships at metros in Baltimore and Indianapolis and reporting and editing for the Chicago Tribune, he is senior associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
About 150 pieces of legislation were proposed in that Florida session, nearly all of them — including proposals to shut off access to water records — justified on the thesis they were combating terrorism.
Franklin had had first-hand experience with freedom of information controversies when the Orlando Sentinel sought the autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR driving legend who died in a crash at the Daytona 500 race just seven months before 9/11. The paper repeatedly said it had no intention of publishing the photos, but wanted them examined by independent neurologists in the context of NASCAR safety protocols.
“There was a panic about access to information,” Franklin said. “There was concern among Florida journalists and Florida news leaders that we were on the brink of losing the best open records laws in the United States.”
That concern mobilized Florida newspapers that were remarkably strong journalism institutions — and strong competitors.
“It’s almost unimaginable that they would agree to start this thing called ‘Sunshine Sunday,’” he said.
But they all realized that it fit their common mission. “What do news organizations do? We provide a public service and try to educate the public and heighten public awareness,” Franklin said. “Now we are going to raise public awareness of why there are public records and open government laws — and what would be lost if they went away.”
The newspapers — and the news operations of many radio and television stations — agreed that on one Sunday in March 2002, they would all take up the open government theme, publishing or broadcasting news stories, enterprise pieces, editorials, commentaries and columns about the importance of open government to democracy.
“And it worked,” Franklin said.
Of those 150 or so bills introduced to reduce transparency, only a handful passed. “There was no question that it was the intense focus that the Florida news organizations brought to the issue that led to these bills dying a sudden death,” Franklin said.
Three years later, Franklin was chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee for the American Society of Newspaper Editors — now known after a merger as the News Leaders Association — and helped take the idea of Sunshine Sunday national. Because some of its participants didn’t publish on Sunday or were weeklies, the day became a week that includes the March 16 birthdate of James Madison, the founding father who was the greatest advocate for transparency in the new nation.
Fifteen years later, government transparency is even more of a pressing issue than it was back then, Franklin said.
"I don’t mean this in a partisan way,” he said. “President Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Yet, he prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined for leaking information.”
But it has gotten even worse in the past three years, he added. The coronavirus and the ensuing fear, and even panic, is a good example of the need for open government.
“A public health crisis is when you see the absolute need for open information,” he said. “Epidemiologists need information. Where do they get it? From public health organizations, sure, but also from journalists who report on health data.”
And freedom of information laws continue to help ordinary citizens even more than journalists, Franklin said.
“Is my children’s playground at school safe? Is there lead in the water in my community? Is this traffic intersection in my community safe? Without information, people are not able to make informed decisions,” Franklin said.
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