Editorial: You're the boss; know your rights

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 07:42 PM

You keep hearing that this is a closely divided nation and a closely divided state. Political pundits refer to North Carolina as “purple” because either of the major parties starts election season with a decent chance to win.

But the past week broughts news about an area where party labels make no difference.

Did you know that North Carolina has laws on the books that make public documents, records, information and meetings available and accessible to any person?

It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is, the chances are you answered that question, “No” – 68 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans are unaware that our state’s open meetings and records laws exist, according to the most recent Elon University Poll.

That’s pretty bad, but on the plus side, they also are in broad agreement on what should be available to the public: 58 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans agree that you should be able to get any document you want from the government; and 70 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans would support an amendment to the state constitution that would make all public business of any government body open and available to the public.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, people are of two minds on the issue of public records. They’ll say you should be able to get any document you want, but not really just any document.

For instance, nearly two-thirds of both parties say you should not have access to records saying how often any particular person voted. Maybe that feels a little intrusive to people.

But that can be handy information to be able to look up, as happened in 2000 when John Edwards ran for U.S. Senate and reporters found that between 1991 and 1998 Edwards had not even cast a vote in half of the elections. North Carolinians either weren’t bothered by that or felt it was offset by something else, but without the open records law they would not have even known about it.

Similarly, 58 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats say that government employees’ emails should not be open to the public. Again, maybe it feels a little intrusive.

But the reason for it was stated well Thursday by John Robinson, a journalism instructor and the former editor of the Greensboro News & Record:

“Many news stories about government malfeasance have been verified by public employee emails. Because of the way government is conducted today, making those emails private is the same as making all written correspondence private. ...

“The deal is pretty simple. When tax money pays your salary, then the public is your boss. Bosses get to see emails. Bosses get to look at how you are conducting business in your name. Bosses get to drop in on meetings of their employees if they want to.”

As the word "public" implies, these laws are not there just for the media to use. The law gives the media no greater access to records and meetings than it gives to anyone else. Indeed, one of the most frequent users of the open records laws in this state is the conservative Civitas Institute in Raleigh. You as an individual have every bit as much right to these documents.

Laws mandating open records, open meetings and open courts originated from the same impulse as the Bill of Rights – that government should be the servant doing the will of the people, treating all fairly according to the law, and the people should have the means to be sure that is how the government is functioning.