The “Right” Voice on Transparency and Openness 

Ryan Mulvey 

Welcome to Sunshine Week 2024! 

As I explained last week in Americans for Prosperity’s (AFP) latest Civil Liberties newsletter, Sunshine Week is that special time of the year when we acknowledge the importance of open government, transparency, and the role that Freedom of Information (FOI) laws have played in holding those in power to account.  The promise of FOI laws is that they empower everyday Americans to check those in positions of power and to shed sunlight—the best of disinfectants, as Justice Louis Brandeis once quipped—on the unelected bureaucrats who occupy the countless alphabet agencies and regulatory bodies that increasingly govern all aspects of our daily lives. 

But FOI isn’t just about reactive access to public-records requests.  There are other ways in which government should commit itself to openness and transparency.  Proactive disclosure.  Streamlined first-party access to personal records.  Honest budgetary impact statements.  Robust open-meetings laws.  The list can go on and on. 

Government transparency has long been an important part of the heritage of our Founding.  Although there was no FOI law in the early Republic—nor would one have probably been needed considering the size of the federal government—important figures in our history have still valued openness.  Consider the words of President James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, whose birthday always coincides with Sunshine Week: 

[P]opular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.  Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. 

Written in 1822, Madison’s words ring true today and are as important as ever. 

This year, instead of our traditional prompt, we have invited figures from the center-right space to provide a conservative/libertarian perspective on transparency and open government.  Interestingly, the right-of-center perspective is often absent in public discourse on transparency.  Many of this year’s participants are also part of the new “Right on Transparency” coalition, which is working hard to disrupt this absence. 

You can expect some excellent commentary over the next four days.  Later today, for example, Ben Isgur and Braden Boucek from the Southeastern Legal Foundation will address the frustration that parents face when trying to access copies of curriculum used in public schools.  Transparency laws, they argue, should always trump copyright claims. 

Tomorrow, Kevin Schmidt from AFP Foundation will address a new model policy that will be released by the “Right on Transparency” coalition, and Joe Bishop-Henchman of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation will consider the steps that have been taken to fight Congress’s dysfunction and improve fiscal transparency in the appropriations process. 

On Wednesday, Allan Blutstein of FOIA Advisor will help us identify the most active nonprofit requesters and the trend of nonprofit requesting over the past several years.  The data certainly suggests some political motivation in a certain sector of the requesting community.  And Andrew Blackburn of the Mercatus Center will describe the practice of “incorporation by reference,” which has led to a tremendous volume of regulatory text being hidden behind paywalls, thus adding an additional compliance cost on the regulated industry. 

Finally, on Thursday, Liam Gallagher (AFP Kentucky) and Thomas Kimbrell (AFP Foundation) will discuss FOI issues at the state level, and how they’ve either defended open-records statutes or used them as a powerful investigative tool for holding government accountable.  

Please also join us on Thursday, March 14, at 1pm Eastern, for a webinar discussion with our symposium participants.  Anything FOI-related will be fair game.  If you’re interested, you can register online

Happy Sunshine Week! 

Ryan P. Mulvey is policy counsel at Americans for Prosperity Foundation and counsel at Cause of Action Institute.  He currently serves as President of the American Society of Access Professionals.  Together with former colleagues, he helps run FOIA Advisor, a free resource on the federal Freedom of Information Act