Newswise — Constitutional provisions for access to government in Florida, California, Louisiana, Montana, and Rhode Island provide the best protection for the public, according to new findings compiled by University of Florida researchers.
Study results, released by the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at UF's College of Journalism and Communications, show that constitutions in these five states have the best overall protections for citizens' access to government records.
These states are in the minority, though. The findings showed that 75 percent of states scored below 2.5 for openness on the project's seven-point scale, called the Sunshine Index. States in the 2 range received a mostly closed, or "nearly dark" rating. A 7 stands for complete sunshine, or complete citizen access to records. Florida rated a 6, for mostly open and mostly in the sunshine. California and Louisiana rated a 5 for most of their categories, as in somewhat open. Montana and Rhode Island received a 4 in most categories.
Florida's constitutional language grants every person "the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state."
That kind of protection is vital to openness, said Bill F. Chamberlin, director of the project and Joseph L. Brechner Eminent Scholar of Mass Communications in UF's College of Journalism and Communications.
"Without protection to access government records in the constitution, the public is dependent on the legislature to provide access to government documents," Chamberlin said. "Constitutional authority is the ultimate legal hammer. It is a hammer that few officials can ignore, and statutory requirements are not always taken as seriously as they should be."
The study is released during the Second Annual National Sunshine Week, March 12-18, in which news media across the nation highlight the importance of freedom of information through stories and editorials.
"It's far better when these rights are provided in the constitution," said Barbara Peterson, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open government. "A constitutional right has more weight than a statutory right. The legislature in any state can monkey around with the statutes, but only people can change the constitution."
Chamberlin said Florida and California have the strongest constitutional language, more all-encompassing than the others.
"In addition, Florida, unlike the others, has in the constitution hoops that the Legislature must pass through before it amends the strong open records requirements in the statute now," he said.
"As with almost any process that requires human interaction, the more closely the directions for that interaction are detailed, then the more readily we can know what to do and how to do it successfully," said Shannon Martin, associate professor of journalism at the University of Maine and director of the Maine Center for Student Journalism.
Martin also is a member of the Citizen Access Project Advisory Committee that ranked the state constitutions for openness.
The project's panel of experts, known as the Sunshine Review Board, analyzed state constitutions in eight categories, including legislature, executive branch, government employees, local government, county government, private institutions, public participation in government, courts and procedures.
Each state constitution was also reviewed in eight specific subcategories, including access to financial records, independent entities, security, redistricting, retirement records, elections, privacy protection and judicial conduct complaints.
"States like California and Florida have in recent years created constitutional provisions for access. Those are really instructions for some of the other states that have not done so," said Charles Davis, associate professor of journalism studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
"Freedom of Information law has historically been a statutory animal," Davis said. "What's really encouraging for states that don't have constitutional provisions is that citizens' initiatives "¦ were overwhelmingly supported by the public."
Members of the project's advisory board who participated in the rating of the constitutional provisions include: Sandy Davidson, associate professor, University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism; Kevin Goldberg, associate, Cohn and Marks LLP; Harry Hammitt, editor/publisher, Access Reports; Frosty Landon, Virginia Coalition for Open Government; Ian Marquand, special projects coordinator, television station KPAX, and Society of Professional Journalists past Freedom of Information Committee chairman; Patrice McDermott, assistant director, Office of Government Relations American Library Association; Eric Turner, director of public education with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission; Charles D. Tobin, partner, Holland & Knight LLP, Washington, D.C.; and Shannon Martin, associate professor of journalism at the University of Maine and director of the Maine Center for Student Journalism.
The Citizen Access Project is funded by Orlando broadcast executive Marion Brechner. The project also received funding from the Miami-based Knight Foundation.
For a complete list of state rankings, visit http://www.citizenaccess.org.