Scott Stanford: Keeping public records public

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I read some distressing statistics in this month's edition of Presstime about attitudes toward public information. A few of the highlights:

According to a McCor--mick Tribune Freedom Museum Sur--vey, just 11 percent of Ameri--cans know that freedom of the press is a First Amendment right, yet 24 percent can name all three judges on "American Idol" and 22 percent can name all five of "The Simpsons."

Thirty-nine percent of Americans think the press has too much freedom to do what it wants, according to a 2005 State of the First Amendment Survey.

Forty-nine percent of high school students think newspapers should not be allowed to publish freely without government approval.

Such numbers are sad, but not uncommon. I think the public understands that open records and open government are important, but mistrust of the media is as great or greater than mistrust of government. Unfortunately, some of that media mistrust is deserved.

Also, since Sept. 11, politicians and government officials have exploited Americans' fear of terrorism to weaken public information laws and increase secrecy. That's a disturbing trend.

Public attitudes on this front aren't likely to change -- debates about what is and what isn't public information can be a tedious exercise in legalese. All the more reason that community newspapers such as the Steamboat Pilot & Today must be vigilant advocates for open government.

That means pushing for the release of documents, challenging executive sessions that we think improper, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and educating record keepers when necessary.

All members of our news staff have copies of Colorado's open records and open meetings laws on their desks. They all have booklets about Sunshine Laws that provide them with information about asking for government records, protesting the closure of court hearings and protesting executive sessions that we think improper. We use all of these tools multiple times each year.

The media has no greater access to public records than anyone else. But time, money and bureaucracy can be deterrents to individuals trying to inspect government records. That's where the newspaper can help. If you think you have an open meetings and open records issue, send me an e-mail or give me a call.

Adding Ann

As I promised in an earlier column, we explored adding conservative columnist Ann Coulter to our ViewPoints page. We made the decision last week to pick up her column, and it made its debut last Friday. Coulter writes one column a week that we will publish on Thursdays.

As I said I would, I have decided to pair Coulter with left-leaning columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. That should give readers some different perspectives each week. See both columns on Page 6 of today's newspaper.

From the Editor appears Thursdays in the Steamboat Today. Send questions to Scott Stanford at sstanford@steamboat pilot.com, or call him at 871-4221.

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