Government Officials Should Embrace Transparency
Many applauded editorials that appeared in hundreds of newspapers and online news organizations all over the country in August supporting a free and open press. Here in Colorado, The Denver Post, the Aurora Sentinel, the Boulder Daily Camera, Longmont Times-Call, the Journal-Advocate in Sterling and the ColoradoIndependent.com were among those who weighed in, decrying President Donald Trump’s describing the media as the enemy of the people.
Let me tell you respect for a free and open press is not just lacking by the current occupant of the White House but is often missing in Denver.
In an Aug. 16 column, Susan Greene of the ColoradoIndependent.com detailed how Denver Police handcuffed her for photographing them in the process of detaining a naked man sitting on a sidewalk. She was put in a patrol car and later released. Under Colorado law, the public can record the public actions of the police. More importantly, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of the public to photograph or record anything visible from a public space.
Greene pointed out that while the Mayor later issued a statement critical of the conduct of the police, at the same time he failed to follow up in a meaningful way and evaded or ignored media inquiries into the matter.
She also cited an all-too-frequent tendency of elected officials to duck the press or not forthrightly answer tough questions. Greene’s plea was, in part, that elected officials behave differently and actually proactively support the First Amendment, governmental transparency and accountability to the people they are elected to serve. She concluded, “I dream of a time when The Independent and each of the hundreds of outlets editorializing today can spend more time reporting news than fighting for our ability to do so.”
(Greene’s column can be read in full at www.coloradoindependent.com/2018/08/16/greene-free-press-first-amendment-handcuff-owens-supreme-court/)
Many feel that our current city government routinely stymies lawful public access to public information – a truly disturbing trend. In Greene’s matter, the police officers who arrested her were not criminally charged. The result of the internal police investigation is pending. After, a near seven-week delay, the officer’s body cam footage was finally released and appears to corroborate Greene’s description of events. Perhaps this is why the city is facing yet another lawsuit, this time by Greene and the ColoradoIndependent.com, around the actions of law enforcement.
Other reporters and editors, including those here at Greater Park Hill News, as well as neighborhood advocates across the city, report that they have found it increasingly difficult to access information about city operations – including documents ranging from traffic accidents to developers’ interactions with Parks and Recreation and other departments.
At times like this, we would be well served to remember our history. In 1971 the U.S. Government sought to block the New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the then-classified Pentagon Papers. The question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether the First Amendment’s guaranty of the freedom of the press could be made secondary to the government’s claimed need to maintain secrecy of information. In ruling for the two newspapers’ right to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of the press to censure government, bare the secrets of government and inform the press. An informed citizenry remains the best check on the lack of accountability, transparency, and responsibility by our government.
As an elected official, public board member and candidate I have always made myself available to answer questions, even when they were tough or uncomfortable. Yes, I have had my differences with the fourth estate. Yet I always understood that while adversarial they were never the enemy. I have always agreed with the fundamental premise that the First Amendment is vital to having a functioning democracy.
We deserve accountability, transparency, and responsibility in all levels of government, no matter how uncomfortable that may be for those elected to serve.
Be mindful of that in coming elections.
Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney with Kutak Rock and serves on a number of nonprofit boards. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003, when he resigned from the Senate to run for Mayor of Denver. Penfield’s adult daughter was born and raised in Park Hill, and he and his wife Paulette remain in the neighborhood.