Public Access to Government: An Enduring Right

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The State of Oklahoma Judicial Center is home to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. Court records are available at
Photo by Maury “Kevin” Blair

Cities and public bodies are reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic by making live meetings available online.

Is that really access to government?

A key question is whether, when watching online, you are able to ask questions or make comments as part of the proceedings.

In the normal course of events, pre-coronavirus, one could attend their city council meeting and sign up to ask questions or make comments — in person.

How is that accomplished online, and is that really “access to government?”

A few weeks ago, I asked on social media whether anyone had experienced any difficulty with the issue of access to government during COVID-19.

There was no significant response, if any.

Granted, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown us a major curveball, and we are distracted by fears or, at least, by other priorities and obligations.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has provided information on his official website concerning temporary amendments to the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act in response to COVID-19.

Emphasis on “temporary.”

The following review of the history of public access to the government may be helpful.

The preamble to the United States Constitution identifies who is really in charge of the government, and who is, therefore, to blame if something goes wrong.

We’ve all read it before, or should have:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Notice the first clause is “We the People of the United States.” That’s us.

The part about posterity? That’s us, too.

So, there it is. We are in charge. If we don’t participate in government by exercising our right to vote, or speaking up in public forums, then the consequences are on us.

Distraction, though understandable, is no excuse. We owe it to “ourselves and to our posterity” to stay informed.

The trip through history from the first Constitutional convention in 1787 to your city hall is a long one, but the point is that we have the right to be heard. We have the right to participate in every level and department of government in the nation, either directly or by our representatives.

In mass communication classes we are required to memorize the First Amendment to the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Simply put, that means that we, the people, have the right to know what the government is doing, and we can tell them whether or not we like what they are doing.

We can attend public meetings and be allowed to speak at those meetings. With some exceptions, most government records are available to us.

Freedom of the press is another means by which the people hold their government to account.

Public officials have a duty to support and defend our constitutional rights.

Every law passed in the U.S. must serve a rational public interest, founded in the United States Constitution.

The people who govern us, with our consent, cannot just fabricate a government as they go. They have a duty to know that.

They expect you to look, ask questions and participate. Most probably hope that you do pay attention. Some, however, might hope that you don’t.

The first group will probably govern in our best interests. The second might not.

If we don’t care, or we just simply go about our lives assuming that the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government are just going to always act in our best interest, leaving us to our “bread and circuses,” then we can expect to lose what we have.

That part about “bread and circuses,” by the way, is attributable to the Roman poet Juvenal, who lived in the late first and early second century. He was referring to the political situation near the end of the Roman Empire, wherein people could be easily distracted from political involvement by food and superficial entertainment.

In America we have one of the best systems of government ever, if an informed citizenry will stay politically engaged and hold it accountable.

The pandemic, we hope, will eventually pass. Temporary amendments to laws concerning public access to government will pass.

The right to public access to government meetings and records will endure. You have only to avail yourself of it.

It is as easy as contacting our city, state and federal officials, understanding and following the legislative process, knowing what our courts are doing, and keeping tabs on our mayor, governor, the president or, for that matter, any body of government because they all make decisions that affect our lives.

As English historian and philosopher Lord John Dahlberg Acton once said in 1887, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

However, this will not be the case in America if “We the People” pay attention.

So please, pay attention.

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