Sunshine laws?

中国日报网 2014-09-17 09:37



Sunshine laws?

Reader question:

Please explain “sunshine laws” in this sentence: Legislation promoting open government is referred to as sunshine laws.

My comments:

They’re called sunshine laws because they let the sun shine indoors, in the doors of a closed meeting of the government.

Hence “sunshine laws” are synonymous with open government.

First of all, sunshine laws are real laws. American states, for example, each has its own legislation (laws) requiring government agencies to disclose, among other things, meeting records to the public.

Why do they do that?

Because, because, putting it simple terms, the government is supposed to serve the people and the people want to know – they have a right to know.

At the national or federal level, the US Freedom of Information Act, for example, is such a legislation that promotes sunshine and transparency in government.

It is generally accepted that sunshine laws are known as sunshine laws because of Florida, which is the first state to establish a public-records law, back in 1909. Florida, situated as the southeast tip of the United States, is known (as the Sunshine State) for its sunshine, beaches and heat. It also helps that in 1967, Florida enacted an improvement on the original legislation aptly titled thus – Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Hence and in short, laws promoting open government and transparency are known as sunshine laws, which, to use the sunlight analogy again, lights up the closed rooms of government, which is, after all, public domain.

We need to have sunshine laws in China, for sure. We, too, have a right to know and we want to know what the government is up to.

Well, some of you may not care about it but the thing is, when government officials know that the public knows what they’re up to, they tend to refrain from doing their worst.

That’s the main point of why China, a country with a 2,000-year feudal tradition, needs to have sunshine laws.

If you check the constitution, we seem to have them already. We seem to have everything already. Whatever the case, my point remains: We need more sunshine laws.

We need more laws in general, laws that can be implemented effectively.

But first things first, if you live in a city like Beijing, you need more sunshine first and foremost.

Weather permitting (wind, wind, wind), we, hopefully, may have more sunshine in future.

Then, hopefully, we perhaps will have more sunshine laws.

Perhaps hell, we will have them.

Alright, here are media examples for you to see “sunshine laws” in action:

1. We call them Sunshine laws, FOIAs, public records laws, right to know laws and open meeting laws.

These are the laws that shed sunlight on government operations by mandating certain meetings be open to and documents be available to the public.

Today through Saturday is Sunshine Week, when the American public and news media celebrate advances in and call for more openness in government.

Sunshine laws are essential for the news media to be an effective, independent check and balance on government,” said Mike Maher, professor and head of the UL Communication Department. “Most of us lead busy lives and don't have time to attend the meetings of government agencies. ...

“Sunshine laws ensure that media (and their audiences) have access to governmental decision making,” he said.

Sunshine laws, on the federal level called the Freedom of Information Act, assist the news media and public in checking government abuse, said Scott Elliott, assistant professor of communication at UL.

On a national level, within hours of taking office in January, President Barack Obama acted to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, including more transparency and accountability in government and more accessibility to presidential records.

Under the Bush administration, constitutional scholars were concerned about restrictions enacted under the Patriot Act, Elliott said. Of particular concern was the secrecy of the administration leading up to the war in Iraq, he said.

- Sunshine laws protect public, help expose abuses,, March 14, 2009.

2. A southwest Ohio judge will decide whether officials in a suburban township violated state laws with informal sessions ahead of their public meetings.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that a Clearcreek Township resident is challenging the gatherings in the township administrator’s office under Ohio open meetings laws, also known as “Sunshine laws.”

He says there was no notice given to the public and no record of what was discussed.

Testimony was expected to begin Thursday in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

- Ohio judge to decide whether township violated law,, January 30, 2014.

3. Are the police departments of Ferguson and St. Louis County, Missouri, involved in a conspiracy to obstruct justice in the case of Michael Brown’s murder? It seems disturbingly possible, given their actions over the past month, hiding basic evidentiary information from the public in direct violation of the state’s sunshine laws—and perhaps not even gathering it in the first place. This raises the further possibly that evidence is being hidden from criminal investigators as well, particularly since the investigators have shown no great interest, much less zeal, in getting to the truth of the matter.

On Aug. 15, the world saw Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson belatedly release Darren Wilson’s name—and no other information at all about the killing of Michael Brown—while at the same time releasing a report (followed by a video) on an unrelated robbery that Brown was apparently involved in. On Aug. 20 and 21, first St. Louis County, then Ferguson released incident reports on the shootings—reports virtually devoid of any information. These highly questionable revelations stirred a fair amount of public outrage, but few people seemed to realize how truly sinister they were, or how they connected to much broader patterns of official lawlessness that have long bedeviled St. Louis County, and Missouri more generally, as well as many other jurisdictions across the land.

On Sept. 5, TheBlot magazine reported that Chief Jackson had lied on Aug. 15, when he claimed that he released the robbery report and video because of numerous media requests. Public records released to TheBlot showed that no one had specifically asked for either of them, while many people had asked for information about the killing of Michael Brown, which Jackson refused to release at that time.

Chief Jackson’s press statement at the time thus contained at least two big misstatements—first that information about the robbery was released because of media requests, and second that he was releasing all the information requested relative to the shooting of Michael Brown:

“So, we’ve had this tape for a while, and we had to diligently review the information that was in the tape, determine if there was any other reason to keep it, anybody else that would be charged with a crime, and we had determined that that was not going to be the case. We got a lot of Freedom of Information requests for this tape, and at some point it was just determined we had to release it. We didn’t have good cause, absent any other reason to not release it under FOI. So we decided, the same time, wouldn’t be prudent to release that information, which could be a little bit…I don’t know… well, we needed to release that at the same time we would release the name of the officer who was involved in the shooting, so that we could just keep open, give you all the information that we have. We’ve pretty much given you every bit of information that we have now, I don’t think there’s anything else that we have to give out.”

But while Jackson’s high-profile statement may have been outrageously false and misleading, it’s the underlying actions of his department in the shadows that are downright criminal, part of a seemingly routine pattern of actual lawbreaking by the police themselves, both in Ferguson and St. Louis County—a persistent pattern that hasn’t stopped, according to emails provided to Salon even though the Department of Justice has announced it’s going to investigate both organizations.

- Ferguson’s massive cover-up: How police departments are protecting Michael Brown’s killer,, September 14, 2014.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Take it or leave it

They pulled themselves up by their collective bootstraps

Living wage?

Wear and tear?

Faux pas?


(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)


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