Friday, July 19, 2024

It’s your right to know

by Daily Inter Lake
| March 10, 2024 12:00 AM

This week, news organizations across the nation are celebrating Sunshine Week to highlight the Freedom of Information Act’s important role in protecting democracy and your right to know through public records and open meetings.

Started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, the name Sunshine Week is a play on a century-old quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” 

That notion still rings true today, and is a founding principle of the work journalists do every day. The Hagadone Media Montana group of newspapers, including the Daily Inter Lake, frequently turn to public records requests to help shine a light on public proceedings. In the last year alone, this newspaper has filed public document requests regarding Flathead County, ImagineIF Libraries, Bigfork School District, the City of Kalispell, the Flathead National Forest and the Department of Interior. 

In some cases, the information gleaned from those requests became the basis for a story that revealed agency workings, while other times it simply helped a reporter confirm that what an official said matched their internal correspondence. In all instances, it aided this newspaper in telling a more complete story about how your government works.

Adopted by Congress in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act enshrines the public right to request access to records from any federal agency. There are some exemptions to protect personal privacy, national security and law enforcement — for example, Congress is not subject to FOIA requests — but its overarching intent is to ensure you have reasonable access to public records.

Montana has its own public information laws as well, including the Montana Open Meetings Law and the Montana Public Records Act, which ensures access to public documents from government agencies at all levels. 

While public records are typically in the form of paper documents, they could also be emails or text messages, dash-cam video footage or photographs, or even an audio recording of a meeting or court proceeding. All of this information lives in the public realm and is available for public review.

It’s your right to know — and it’s our job to use these tools to help ensure government transparency and accountability.

Learn more about Sunshine Week and the Freedom of Information Act at