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Introduction to the Open Government Guide

The Open Government Guide is a comprehensive guide to open government law and practice in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia detailing the rights of reporters and other citizens to see information and attend meetings of state and local governments.

Whether you are using a guide from one state to find a specific answer to an access issue, or the complete compendium encompassing all states to survey approaches to a particular aspect of open government law around the country, knowing a few basics on how the Open Government Guide is set up will help you to get the most out of it.

Every state section is based on the same standard outline to allow easy comparisons between state laws. The outline is divided into two parts: access to records and access to meetings. Some changes may have been made to the outline in particular states to fit the laws and practices of those states.

The compendium has enabled open government advocates in one state to use arguments successful in other states to enhance access rights at home. Press associations and lobbyists have been able to invoke other sunshine laws as they seek reforms in their own.

The Reporters Committee published new editions of the Open Government Guide in 1989, 1993, 1997, 2001, 2006, in 2011, and now in 2019.

We rely on volunteer attorneys, expert in open government laws in each state and in Washington, D.C., who generously donate their time to prepare the outlines. We are grateful to them for their willingness to share in this ongoing project to create the first and only detailed treatise on state open government law. The rich knowledge and experience all the participating attorneys bring to this project make it a success.

At its core, participatory democracy decries locked files and closed doors. Good citizens study their governors, challenge the decisions they make and petition or vote for change when change is needed. But no citizen can carry out these responsibilities when government is secret.

Assurances of open government exist in the common law, in the first state laws after colonization, in territorial laws in the west and even in state constitutions. All states have passed laws requiring openness, often in direct response to the scandals spawned by government secrecy. The U.S. Congress strengthened the federal Freedom of Information Act after Watergate, and many states followed suit.

Some public officials in state and local governments work hard to achieve and enforce open government laws. The movement toward state freedom of information compliance officers reflects a growing activism for access to information in the states.

But such official disposition toward openness is exceptional. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear that a state or local government is trying to restrict access to records that have traditionally been public —- usually because it is feared release of the records will violate someone’s “privacy” or threaten our nation’s security.

It is in this climate of tension between broad democratic mandates for openness and official preference for secrecy that reporters and good citizens need to garner their resources to ensure the passage and success of open government laws.

The Reporters Committee genuinely hopes that the Open Government Guide will help a vigorous press and citizenry to shape and achieve demands for openness, and that it will serve as a primer for those who battle in government offices and in the courts for access to records and meetings. When challenges to secrecy are successful, the news is better and so is the government.