Stepping up to the fight

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Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

— James Madison

There are some within my industry who fear that I and the Wyoming Press Association has turned its back on the fight to secure the right of Wyoming’s citizens to access public documents, but that is not the case.

As an association of community newspaper publishers— and Wyoming business owners— we have simply come to understand and acknowledge that transparency is not something that can magically be guaranteed by a piece of legislation or a court decision. 

In a free society, the fight for transparency is no different than the fight for any of the other rights and liberties we hold dear. It is a battle that must be fought constantly— and passionately.

In a self-governed society, it is also a battle that is best fought at home— where such fights are the most meaningful, honest and passionate. It is the responsibility of community newspapers to lead those battles, and our efforts are best spent fighting them in our own communities.

When we do so, we invite the community to participate in the conversation, and that reinforces the importance of transparency because it increases engagement between local governments and the communities they serve. Transparency also allows governments in a free society to tap into its greatest resource— citizens— because it arms those citizens with the knowledge they need to offer their own solutions and ideas to the people who represent them.

It was a little disconcerting to read a headline on WyoFile and in the Casper Star-Tribune that said “Wyoming Press Association Stands Down in Open Records Fight” to describe a presentation I gave to the Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in Lander last month. That isn’t what I— or the Board of Directors of the Wyoming Press Association— was doing at all.

We are stepping up, not standing down, because we’re tired of watching as the value of transparency is eroded by the constant efforts to tinker at the edges of existing state law— a law that ensures the people of Wyoming will enjoy an open government.

The desire by both sides in the transparency fight to ask the legislature almost annually to modify statute to protect their side from an abuse or manipulation of Wyoming’s current open meetings, public records and public notice laws is folly. It produces no significant result beyond watering down what is a pretty clear statute at present. And in doing so, it simply ensures it is more likely that further abuses and manipulations will occur.

This constant hand-wringing over “boogeymen” and the potential that they may abuse state law only guarantees we will be back in front of the legislature next year to begin the cycle again. Neither side wins, but the people of Wyoming lose because the ideal of “open government” becomes a little less meaningful each time.

Transparency is not a problem that we should ask the legislature or the courts to solve.

Transparency is the solution to the problems that infect government most, and the Wyoming Press Association is engaging in the conversation this time with a commitment to offer solutions to the real problems in Wyoming— solutions that are only found through transparency.

We’re tired of engaging in political exercises that do nothing but pay lip service to the ideal of transparency, and erode its value by suggesting it is something to be honored only because of the way it is written in state statute.

Transparency and open government mean more than that.

They have to, and the Wyoming Press Association is proud to lead a battle to secure the ideal of open government in this state by using transparency for the vitally important role it is meant to play in our society— as a guarantee that the people who wish to govern themselves will always have the knowledge and information to do so effectively.

The time is now to offer this bold— yet affordable— solution to increased spending in state government. It is time to take on the challenge presented by decreased understanding and engagement of state government by our citizens. I urge anybody who is interested in learning more about the solutions the Wyoming Press Association is offering to the Wyoming State Legislature and the people of Wyoming to contact us via email at wyopress@wyopress.org because we’re excited to share those ideas.

But let me once again be clear.

When it comes to open records or anything else that impacts the right of citizens to access the information they need to participate in their own government, the Wyoming Press Association is not standing down.

We were simply tired of standing still, and chose to step up and challenge the legislature to use public notices to produce the result the founding fathers desired when, in 1789, the First Session of Congress ordered publication of government proceedings in newspapers. It was especially gratifying to see members of the Corporations Committee show interest in our presentation. I’m excited to answer your questions— openly and honestly— and welcome you to the movement.

Our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion. 

— John F. Kennedy

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