‘Here comes the sun’ moments in government

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George Harrison’s song of spring is a fitting start to my Sunshine Week 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, Ariz. 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.

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.

“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.”

Brian Hunhoff of the Yankton County Observer is a member of the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He is a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Association Freedom of Information Award.

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