"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press." Thomas Jefferson wrote this is in 1786, just a decade after the birth of our nation. Jefferson knew that in order to hold their government accountable, it was essential for the people to be informed.
He's still right.
One of the ways the United States has protected the freedom of the press is by passing open meeting laws. Since my role as a journalist is to inform the public, I think it's important to talk about how open meeting law works and how we use it at The Globe.
Minnesota's Open Meeting Law was first enacted in 1957 and has since been codified in Minnesota statutes.
WHO: Open meeting law applies to all levels of state and local governmental bodies, including committees and subcommittees, as well as non-profits created by political entities. The law makes no distinction between bodies that are elected and bodies that are appointed.
WHAT: A "meeting" according to law is a meeting for the purpose of making policy, held by at least enough members of the governmental body to make a quorum (usually a simple majority). This includes phone conversations. Action does not need to be taken in order for an event to count as a "meeting."
WHY: The Minnesota Supreme Court names three specific purposes of the open meeting law: 1) To prohibit actions being taken at a secret meeting where it is impossible for the interested public to become fully informed about a public board’s decisions or to detect improper influences, 2) To assure the public’s right to be informed and 3) To afford the public an opportunity to present its views to the public body.
HOW: A meeting must be "open" by giving the public plenty of notice in advance of the meeting, inviting the public to attend and providing associated materials to the public. Meetings must be held in a public place within the governmental body's area of jurisdiction. Bodies must record all votes and make these records available to the public.
A few exceptions apply, but these are the basic tenets of the law.
What open meeting law means for journalists is that we are responsible for reporting items of public interest that occur during meetings of city councils, county boards, public commissions, school boards and other entities. Anything said at these meetings by government officials and by participating members of the public is eligible for reporting.
Both elected and appointed governmental bodies are required to conduct their business in public, but individuals and private entities may be only as transparent as they choose.
However, policy isn't written in a vacuum. Individuals and private enterprises need to interact with government bodies on occasion. When a person speaks during an open meeting, whatever they say is now public information. Whether The Globe includes the information in a story or not, comments are noted in the meeting minutes and may be referred to later by any member of the public.
The loss of privacy during open meetings may seem like an inconvenience, but it is necessary. One might even say that our liberty depends on it.