Sunshine laws are one of the cornerstones of a properly functioning democracy. In addition to requiring government meetings to be open to the public, and limiting the number of elected officials in a body who can meet without declaring an open meeting, sunshine laws include access to records of proceedings and other information about government agencies and elected officials.
Access to this kind of information has long been considered sacrosanct not just among journalists, but activists and other advocates as well.
For example, if an advocate for the disabled doesn’t know about the content of a bill that would impede Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enforcement, or otherwise erode the protections offered by that act, they can’t do the necessary work to protect the rights of those they advocate for.
If victims’ rights advocates can’t access information about actions that could expunge the records of convicts, or otherwise impede the ability of their victims to stay informed of their whereabouts and actions, the rights of those victims begin to erode.
It’s a balancing act, weighing the rights of privacy for one group or individual against the rights of access for another. It becomes especially difficult when those in the public domain, such as elected officials, have their family or friends targeted for their association with the lawmaker.
Senators, representatives, attorneys and other elected and government officials – and their families – most definitely have a right to privacy and protection from harassment. But that right must be balanced against the public’s right to access. A right to privacy should not be extended so far that journalists, advocates, and constituents cannot find – and if necessary hold to account – the people they’ve elected to represent them.
This is why we stand behind the KPA in supporting Governor Beshear’s decision to veto Senate Bill 48. The original bill, sponsored by Senator Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, was not opposed by the KPA. But after various amendments in the House, the bill was no longer recognizable as the privacy protection that Carroll had introduced. The new language was so broad and all encompassing that it could, in theory, have made it difficult to impossible to find contact information for law enforcement, judges, and elected officials – both past and present – if they requested that information be removed.
As written, for example, Governor Beshear – a former Attorney General – could have had the telephone number for the Governor’s Office redacted from all public records.
Vetoing the bill doesn’t leave lawmakers without privacy protections either. Other bills, such as Senate Bill 267, address those issues without the gross overreach of the amended SB 48.
SB 267 makes the same actions of disseminating or distributing personal information a crime if the information was “distributed with the intent to intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass or frighten a person,” the Governor wrote in his veto statement. The governor signed that bill into law, but wrote that the “additional exemption created in Senate Bill 48 for ‘public officers’ is drafted so broadly as to be unworkable in practice.”
That language, added by Salyersville Republic Representative John Blanton, is what led the KPA to withdraw their support for the bill as well.
As we noted, the right to privacy for public officials is always a balancing act. But it’s one the officials are aware of when they choose to run for public office. And the “public” portion of “public office” is essential to the transparency of our government institutions and their actions.
Without transparency, corruption finds a fertile bed for growth. Without transparency, voters can’t make informed decisions. Without transparency our fragile democratic experiment could crumble and fall. Without transparency, freedoms die.
It’s why we stand by the KPA in supporting Governor Beshear’s veto of this bill, based solely on the pernicious elements – elements that had already been defeated in previous debates – added by Rep. Blanton at the 11th hour.