Public has a right to yawn
To take a famous Shakespeare quote and turn it on its ear: “A thorn by any other name would be as sharp.”
In New Hampshire, it’s called the Right-to-Know Law. They call it the Public Records Law in Vermont, the Public Records Act in Massachusetts and it’s known as the Sunshine Law in Florida. At the federal level, it’s known as the Freedom of Information Act.
Those laws, in conjunction with various others that require public boards and commissions to meet in public, function as thorns in the side of public officials who would prefer you not see what they’re doing on your behalf and, more importantly, on your dime.
It’s easy to conclude that most of our readers don’t care about the Right-to-Know Law. Editorials and columns about the law itself are among the least-read stories on our website. We can almost hear you yawn as you read this.
But without the Right-to-Know Law, there’s a fair chance that some Nashua public works employees might still be lunching at the Sausage King and other area restaurants, courtesy of John and Jane Q. Taxpayer. Those stories, which came to light as a result of a Right-to-Know request, were ones many people cared about and read.
Without the Right-to-Know Law, it’s unlikely that we’d know the details of a Nashua Police Department investigation into Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and her husband – a story that lifted the lid on the troubled relationship between the mayor and the city’s police chief. Considering that they are two of the most powerful public officials in the city, how they truly feel about one another is a matter of public interest.
There are other examples where our Right-to-Know requests translated into stories, though not always successfully. The mayor refused our request that she disclose her official public calendar. We still think she’s wrong, but her refusal points out one of the law’s biggest deficiencies: It relies almost entirely upon the goodwill of public officials.
Perhaps most people wouldn’t care who the mayor was meeting with in her City Hall office or with whom she was having lunch. But without access to her calendar – which is kept by staffers on the public payroll – it’s hard to know. After all, who would have thought meal receipts could be so interesting?
The Telegraph has made a conscious effort to make government more transparent through our Open Government Project, and we were humbled this week to be honored with the First Amendment Award from the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. It’s not something we sought. In fact, it’s not something you can even apply for. You have to be nominated, and our newsroom was – by two other New Hampshire newspapers, in fact. We are deeply grateful. The nominations were then reviewed by a panel of distinguished journalists, and they chose us.
A Right-to-Know award – particularly this one – is mighty special in our business, but we don’t do it for the awards.
We do it for our readers. We do it because, even if the Right-to-Know Law itself makes their eyes glaze over, they read the stories that result from the requests made under the law. For that, we also are grateful.
As The Telegraph’s Executive Editor, Phil Kincade, said in accepting the First Amendment Award on Tuesday: “The Right to Know allows us to cut through the lies and get to the truth. The Right to Know reveals to us wrongs we never even knew existed. The Right to Know, keeps us free.”
Frankly, New Hampshire’s Right-to-Know Law is pretty weak compared to those in a lot of other states. But until a better one comes along, it’s what we have to work with.
We’ll keep trying to do it justice. We’ll also keep campaigning for a better law.
Even if it produces the occasional yawn.