George Harrison’s song of spring is a fitting start to my Sunshine Week (March 10-17) salute to everyday heroes bringing light to local government.
“Why do you want to know that?” is a question most reporters have heard when asking for public documents. It generally becomes a Freedom of Information teaching moment from the journalist to the reluctant keeper of records.
Many years ago, I was covering a county commission meeting when a department head stood to speak. Before addressing commissioners, he turned to a radio reporter next to me and gruffly ordered him to turn off his tape recorder.
Say what?! We insisted my friend had every right to tape comments at a public meeting, but it took a while to convince the surly official. He clearly didn’t know the first thing about open meeting laws.
It goes with the territory. The press must sometimes teach Sunshine 101 to public officials on Main Street, U.S.A. This column recognizes some of those public servants and intrepid reporters with symbolic citations from my Sunshine Week playlist.
“Here comes the sun” award to Hilde Lysiak, a plucky 12-year-old reporter who made headlines on a visit to Patagonia, Arizona. Riding her bike to investigate a tip, Lysiak was stopped by Patagonia town marshal Joseph Patterson and asked for ID. Lysiak gave her name and said she was a reporter. Patterson said, “I don’t want to hear about any of that freedom of the press stuff.” Lysiak said he also threatened to put her in juvenile detention.
In a second encounter, Lysiak began video-taping Patterson and said, “You stopped me earlier and said I could be thrown in juvie? What exactly am I doing that’s illegal?” Patterson warned her (inaccurately) against posting the video online. “If you put my face on the Internet, that’s against the law,” he said.
See Freedom, Page A5
Lysiak posted a YouTube video of their exchange on her Orange Street News website. She later received an apology from Patagonia mayor Andrea Wood who said the town respects her First Amendment rights.
“House of the rising sun” award to Brenda Fisk, mayor of Paint Rock, Alabama (population 200). Mayor Fisk drafted a resolution to close town board meetings to non-residents and members of the press. She told the Jackson County Sentinel, “What goes on in Paint Rock is the business of the people who live in Paint Rock.” Fisk said she had “personal reasons” for proposing the move, “but I since found out that I cannot do that.”
“I can see clearly now” award to Kirby Delauter, a county councilman from Frederick, Maryland. Delauter once threatened to sue the Frederick News-Post for “unauthorized use of my name.” The newspaper responded with an editorial using his name 26 times. They also explained why newspapers in America are actually allowed to write about public officials without their permission. Delauter later apologized.
“Let the sunshine in” award to Jerry Toomey, former mayor of Mitchell, South Dakota. A citizen called Toomey “a drunk” during the public forum portion of a Mitchell City Council meeting. His accusation set off a heated exchange and stemmed from an earlier altercation between the two men in the citizen’s driveway.
In an interview with the Mitchell Daily Republic, Toomey called the incident “a black eye” for the city, but added, “The public forum has a critical place in government and it is important to let people voice their issues, valid or not.”
“Ain’t no sunshine” award to the Kentucky State Police spokesman who sent the following email to the Barbourville Mountain Advocate: “From this point forward when KSP is working on an investigation, you are to wait until OUR press release is sent out before putting anything on social media, radio, and newspaper … If this continues, you will be taken off our media distribution list.”
Jon Fleischaker, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association, said the order violated the First Amendment and state agencies cannot withhold information “just because they don’t like what the media outlet is writing.”
“Walking on sunshine” award to Art Cullen, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa. Cullen’s editorials about agricultural impact on his state’s poor water quality were not popular with some prominent Republicans. The GOP-controlled Iowa Senate stalled a resolution to recognize his national writing prize. Cullen responded, “I would not want the support of a den of philanderers and oafs.” He added, “I honestly do not care if I am ever honored by the Iowa Senate, the U.S. Congress, or any other institution of dysfunction and cynicism.”
Brian Hunhoff of the Yankton County Observer is a member of the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He received the 2005 S.D. First Amendment Committee Eagle Award “for protecting the public’s right to know” and the 2014 Golden Quill award for editorial writing. He is a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Association Freedom of Information Award.