Nearly fifty years ago a middle-school student and her friends set a major free speech case into motion by wearing a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam war.
They subsequently protested their suspension from school. And eventually won: In 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker vs. Des Moines School District that neither "students or teachers shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Today, Mary Beth Tinker, now a pediatric nurse, tells her story to students to encourage them to stand up for what they believe and speak out on issues they're passionate about. She also reminds them that to speak effectively they must know what's going on. She urges them to read the news, seek out information and opinions, and follow legislative action that affects them.
"I tend to think we should overprotect our rights than take a chance on them," Tinker told students at Western Washington University on Thursday. She met earlier with Ferndale High School students. She suggested they "look at how much difference you can make."
It's good advice for us all. But to be able to speak out, seek change, or even watch what affects us, we need access to governmental deliberation and the decision-making process. We must be able to hear legislators or councilmembers debate, read reports produced by state agencies and observe prosecutions taking place in our name in the courts.
This week is Sunshine Week, an educational effort launched in 2005 to raise awareness about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools, journalists and others promote the public's right to know.
Washingtonians have powerful tools to exercise our rights to access. The Open Public Meetings Act requires public agencies to conduct business in the open, announce meetings and accept public comment. The Public Records Act, enacted as an initiative by the people more than 40 years ago, guarantees access to "recordings" regardless of format generated by governmental agencies.
Tinker's advice to "overprotect our rights" applies to sunshine laws. The Public Records Act initially allowed about a dozen exemptions; today they number more than 400. The legislature is considering another that is raising alarm among access advocates. Substitute House Bill 1128 is inching toward adoption after lobbying by many city and county governments.
SHB 1128 would permit agencies to limit the time they spend processing public records requests. Whatcom County could decide to spend less than a day a month handling requests across all its various departments and agencies, including sheriff and court records, the county council and other taxpayer-funded operations. Once an agency hits its time limit, it could reject all further requests.
The bill would also let any agency or person named in a requested record file suit to block its processing.
A court could stop a record's release if it decides the request was made to "harass or intimidate" an agency. A records request could be rejected if it would "materially interfere with the work of the local agency."
But producing public records is part of the work of local agencies. This bill, while positioned as relief for short-staffed public agencies, constrains sunshine laws by letting local government reject inconvenient requests.
Now, agencies must answer a request within five days, either by releasing records or saying how long it will take to obtain them. They must cite the specific legal exemption for any rejection.
Tinker told Western students that, as a 13-year-old, "I didn't think people could stand up against powerful people like the math teacher" who told her to remove her armband. The Public Records Act is one way Washingtonians can learn what our government is doing so that we can knowledgeably speak up.
Legislative rules say SHB1128 must progress from the state House of Representatives to the State Senate by March 13 or die during this legislative session. It seems fitting that legislation that restricts access be killed during Sunshine Week. But it may happen only if people exercise their right to learn about the issue, stand up and speak out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peggy Watt is a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which is celebrating Sunshine Week this week. A former reporter and editor, she is chair of the department of Journalism at Western Washington University.