Pennsylvania Sunshine Week Highlights Advocacy for Access to Public Information

The fifteenth annual Sunshine Week began on March 16, 2020 to celebrate public access to information across the country and in Pennsylvania.  This week-long event was initiated in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, who selected the date to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, a primary Bill of Rights proponent.  Pennsylvania organizations are participating in celebration of their own freedom of information laws, including the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law.

Over the years, media outlets, government agencies, nonprofits and citizens have celebrated Sunshine Week by partaking in events such as conferences, government information sessions, and panel discussions.  The American Society of News Editors and its cosponsor, the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, also work to involve students in the events and conduct an ad campaign to emphasize the importance of the freedom of information and government transparency.

In Pennsylvania, the Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know Law are both crucial to ensuring that the public maintains access to government information.  The Sunshine Act, for example, requires that all official agency meetings conducted are public and announced with sufficient notice so that citizens have the ability to attend them.  Citizens must also have the opportunity under this law to provide comments on agency action and record their meetings.  The Act states that allowing the public to be present at all official agency meetings is “vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process.”  Furthermore, the legislative findings express that “secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.”

The Right-to-Know Law in Pennsylvania began in 1957 and was revamped in 2008 and 2009.  Although Right-to-Know requests could still be filed prior to this new statute, it vastly improved access in the Commonwealth by requiring agencies to establish why a record should not be released instead of placing the burden on the requester to establish why a record was public, as one was required to do under the prior law.  Under the Right-to-Know Law, names and salaries of public employees and officials are accessible, as are 911 time response logs, settlement agreements, government agency contracts, and more.  The Right-to-Know Law applies to both Commonwealth agencies local agencies such as school districts, municipalities, cities and counties.  It also covers, to a more limited extent, the Legislature and the courts. Although both laws include exceptions, such as meetings that do not meet quorum or highly personal information from government employees such as social security numbers, these two laws are the hallmark of Pennsylvania’s freedom of information.  The law continues to be actively litigated, as there are still many instances in which news organizations and others are denied access to public records.

The General Assembly passed a House Resolution in early February designating March 15 to 21 of this year as “Sunshine Week” in Pennsylvania and encouraging public observance.  The Pennsylvania Senate passed a similar resolution in February.  Another bill was also passed in January of this year to amend the requirements for public officials to provide more notice and notification of agency business.  Some changes in the amendments include requiring agencies to post meeting agendas at both the location of the meeting and at the agency’s principal office.  The bill previously only required the agenda to be posted at the location of the meeting.  This bill also permits the agency to take official action on business added to the agenda by majority vote during the meeting.  However, if they do so, they must post the amended agenda on the publicly accessible website hosted by the agency by the first business day following the meeting.  This legislation highlights ongoing developments to Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act and the continuing importance of Sunshine Week in keeping access to government information in the public’s attention.

With contribution from Angela Mauroni, first year J.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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