Open Government Requires Participation, Says First Amendment Scholar

Article ID: 536153

Released: 12-Dec-2007 1:00 PM EST

Source Newsroom: Middle Tennessee State University

Newswise — In spite of the fact U.S. citizens can't vote on each individual issue or dilemma facing our nation, that's no excuse for Americans to refrain from participating in their own governance, declares Dr. Larry Burriss, a First Amendment scholar and journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

"We have a republican form of government, which means we elect people to represent us," Burriss says, "(but) that does not mean we abdicate all responsibility and sit back and let 'them' do whatever they want, to 'us.'

"Just because we can't vote on every issue and problem that faces ourneighborhood, county, state or nation doesn't mean we can't participate inour own governance. But the only way we can participate is if we know whatis going on with our elected representatives. And that seems to be something 'they' are mightily opposed to."

In spite of the fact the U.S. endorses an open government, "For some reason, many of our elected leaders think that once they get into office they should be above the law," observes Burriss, who also holds a J.D. from Concord Law School. "They think we should just leave them alone to do what they want, which usually means lining their own pockets at our expense. But of course, we have no way of knowing that because we don't have access to many of the records that would point out such activities."

For Burriss, however, the solution to local, county, state and federal officials who think it's OK, even necessary, to limit how much information the public is entitled to knowing, is quite simple.

Says Burriss: "Pass a law that says no secret meetings, no secret discussions, no secret decisions. Period. We get to know how much money each representative receives from which lobbyist. We get to know each and every time a city council member, county commissioner or state representative or senator meets with any group, lobbyist or concerned citizen—and that also goes for agency and department heads. Period."

Further, he adds, "The same rules apply to public records: we get to see every contract, budget and police report. For agency heads and representatives, we get a copy of their tax returns, their business tax returns and their medical records."

As for those elected representatives who don't care to comply, the solution, Burriss says, again is quite elementary in nature.

"Throw them out. Any council member, commissioner or representative who makes any kind of noise about limiting public access to the decision-making process should be voted out of office," Burriss suggests. "(And) maybe if a few of them lost their jobs, the rest would get the idea that the public's business should be conducted in public; not in smoke-filled rooms, restaurants or sports facilities."


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