Our nation’s unique design — featuring governance with the consent of the governed — was revolutionary when it was founded, and it is the reason the country has been so successful over the years. Its success, however, depends on full access to public information. Simply put, the people have a right to know what their elected officials are doing, and how their tax dollars are being spent. In fact, the people need this information so that they can address those officials when needed and make knowledgeable decisions on Election Day. That’s why the access to information intended through the freedom of the press is so important, and why it is one of the most cited and best known features in our Constitution.
Unfortunately, officials aren’t always willing to release that information, regardless of the law. Congress and the states have had to enact legislation supporting that access, and battles constantly have to be fought to secure it.
Currently, one of those waging such a fight is Pat Canty, former editor of the Valley Morning Star and current publisher of the Odessa American, our affiliated newspaper in northwest Texas. In recognition of his efforts, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is honoring Canty with its prestigious James Madison Award. The award is given “to those who demonstrate outstanding commitment to the principles of the First Amendment and open government,” according to the foundation.
Canty receives the award Sept. 24 at the foundation’s state convention in Austin, and we congratulate our colleague for the well-earned recognition.
For the past two years, Canty’s newspaper has fought for access to police records and other public information from the city of Odessa. By law, public information must be released within a reasonable time — if it’s available immediately, then it must be provided immediately. The city routinely has challenged requests for information that is specifically cited as public or has been deemed public by court decisions and opinions issued by the state attorney general.
Odessa’s actions reached a point that Canty and the American felt compelled to file a lawsuit against the city. Odessa currently is appealing a court ruling in the newspaper’s favor.
Litigation is an act of last resort for news media. It often further injures relationships with our sources and is expensive. Government bodies often are more willing to take such matters to court, since they often carry insurance and are using money that isn’t their own, but comes from taxpayers.
“Patrick Canty and the Odessa American, in persisting with this lawsuit, are sending a strong message that government officials serve the people and that the public has a right to know how government is operating,” Foundation Executive Director Kelley Shannon stated in a news release. “Public records belong to all of us and should be provided without delay.”
It’s a tough fight, but one that must be waged. We applaud our colleagues in Odessa, and the FOIFT for supporting the public’s right to know, and its recognition of those who further the cause.