The right to know
June 11, 2002
The thrust and tone of the majority of commentary surrounding the Aspen School District controversy strikes at the heart of the public’s right to know.
In 1966, in support of First Amendment principles, the Freedom of Information Act was passed into law. It was based on a premise argued by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison that openness in government would assist citizens in making informed choices necessary for a democracy.
As a further protection of the public’s right to know, most states later passed “Sunshine Laws.” These laws apply to elected officials, school administrators and their boards.
The Colorado Revised Statutes 24-72-201 reads: “It is declared to be public policy of this state that all public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times.” The statute clearly applies to all people regardless of race, creed, country of origin, length of residency or measure of means.
Neither the Constitution, the Freedom of Information Act nor Colorado law mention knowledge of a person’s motives as a condition of the right to know. Failure to support and encourage legal, unfettered public information access often results in what has come to be known as the “chilling effect.”
The chilling effect refers to a situation where free speech is stifled or limited by an individual or groups’ fear of punishment. This form of self-censorship takes place when an individual who has an alternative viewpoint, instead of articulating it, chooses to evaluate the consequences.
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He/she opts to modify their opinion or refrain from expressing it altogether, especially when it is against popular opinion or bureaucratic power. It takes place when one person begins calling attention to another person or group engaged in expressing contrary remarks or actions and asks others whether this is desirable.
A negative profile is projected onto those articulators. They are painted as “witch hunters” and otherwise somehow “different.” The question often asked by the potential censor of others is, “What is his/her agenda?”
This immediately raises doubts and suspicions over the other person’s actions. In such a climate, there is no respect for debate or disagreement.
Tolerance, and a willingness to accept opposing views, are absent or minimal. Suspicion is the flavor of the day.
I learned this lesson firsthand challenging my grade school’s anti-Semitism and my government’s Vietnam policy. We see it in today’s headlines when our attorney general accuses those who challenge the administration of aiding the enemy or the FBI threatens agents whose questions would embarrass the agency by revealing its shortcomings.
There are valuable lessons surrounding the current school controversy to be taught to our children. They are not lessons based on fear, mistrust or class distinctions. They are the lessons that articulate the principles found in the First Amendment.
These principles are already being taught in our schools; putting them into practice is our constant challenge and greatest opportunity.