Posted in Industry Insights

More sunlight in Sunshine Week

, by Paul Colford

This Sunshine Week has unfolded amid a flurry of developments that highlight the importance of seeking greater access through court action and the legislative process — or, as one case illustrates, by not taking no for an answer.

On Wednesday, The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a media coalition that includes AP, applauded the U.S. Senate’s approval of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, designed to ease access to government records.

On Thursday, a Florida court decided in favor of a group of media companies, including AP, that wanted documents unsealed in the case of wrestler Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media. The Second District Court of Appeals ruled that sealed documents in the case are public records and should be available to the public and the press.

AP was a member of another coalition of news organizations, in Tennessee, that was thwarted in its bid to obtain police files related to a rape at Vanderbilt University three years ago. The state’s highest court said the public is not entitled to police records while a criminal case is being prosecuted or during an appeal.

The reporter who refused to be denied, especially during Sunshine Week, was AP’s Matt Barakat. As recounted in The Washington Post’s True Crime blog, he was unable to obtain motions filed in a criminal case from the clerk in a Virginia courthouse — because he’s a reporter – and so he knocked on doors until the chief judge “ordered the no-reporters policy junked.”

If only access were achieved so quickly. According to an analysis by AP’s Washington investigative unit released today, the U.S. government set a record last year for the number of times federal employees said they were unable to find files requested under the Freedom of Information Act — 129,825 times in all.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information – an effort that has long been a priority at AP.

“The events of the past week show more than ever the continued importance of remaining vigilant and active in the push for greater government transparency,” said AP Assistant General Counsel Brian Barrett. “The AP is committed to this ideal and will continue its fight for greater access on behalf of the public.”

Sunshine Week stories reported by AP, McClatchy and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel were featured on dozens of front pages:

Even as political spending explodes, disclosure remains hazy

Many state legislatures exempt themselves from record laws

The coverage also generated numerous editorials, such as:

The Olympian, in Washington:

Open records law should apply to Legislature

Natchez Democrat, in Mississippi:

Government business is public record