It didn’t feel particularly warm yesterday, but this is Sunshine Week. Newspapers, libraries, and other groups across the country are taking note of a week that celebrates the public’s right to public information. You might think that wouldn’t be necessary in a land that embraces the First Amendment.
In New Hampshire, there is reason to celebrate and also to be concerned about the status of the public’s right to know. That right is enshrined in both state law, the “Right To Know” law; and also in an amendment to New Hampshire’s Constitution.
A valuable and informative discussion of New Hampshire law was held Monday night at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, Inc. The school, which teaches and preaches the First Amendment, co-sponsored the event with the New England First Amendment Coalition.
The discussion was moderated by Atty. Greg Sullivan, who is a member of both entities. Participants included Associate Justice William Delker of the Superior Court, ACLU New Hampshire Director Gilles Bissonette and Union Leader reporter and columnist Mark Hayward.
Also contributing their time and efforts were Asst. Attorney General Lisa English, noting she was speaking for herself, not that office; Nashua corporate counsel Steven Bolton and David Taylor, vice president of Right to Know New Hampshire.
Their presence at an evening event on a cold Monday night in March was testimony to the importance of the topic. A free society cannot expect to stay that way if it is prevented from knowing what its officials, i.e., public servants, are doing in its name.
The good news: Atty. Sullivan, who has been arguing First Amendment and Right to Know cases for four decades, believes that New Hampshire courts are getting it right in a lot of these cases, siding more often than not with the public’s need and right to know as opposed to an agency or individual’s interest.
The bad news: The “personnel’’ exemption in the state Right to Know law remains a difficult deterrent to that public need.
More good news: The Legislature seems to be moving toward creating an “ombudsman” position that would allow the public to bypass costly and confusing court cases.
We wish such a setup wasn’t necessary, as these things tend to take on a costly and bureaucratic life of their own. But the legislation contains a four-year “sunset” provision, so there is time to assess how well it might be working.
Working to make the public’s government entities serve the people, rather than the other way round, is work well worth the effort.