March: In Madison’s memory, let the sunshine in

2011 Columns

In 1836, with a vision for the city that would become Wisconsin’s capital, James Doty proposed that it be named after the man known as the “father of the Constitution,” who had died that year.

James Madison, the fourth U.S. president, is one of the most lasting and relevant of our Founding Fathers. A signer of the Constitution and author of much of the Federalist Papers, Madison was a key proponent of individual liberty and rights – especially for members of the minority in a representative democracy.

He was also an advocate for open and transparent government, and he believed that only when the public has access to information about how its government is run can the governed truly accept the decisions of its leaders.

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” Madison said.

March 16 is the 260th anniversary of Madison’s birth, and March 13-19 happens to be Sunshine Week, an annual event sponsored by American Society of News Editors and other groups, including the Society of Professional Journalists.

Sunshine Week promotes the importance of freedom of information and open government at all levels. Through Sunshine Week, sponsors ASNE, SPJ and others hope the public is inspired to learn more about how government makes decisions and encourage government to share information with the public.

There’s no better example of the role freedom of information plays in a democratic society than the debate playing out right now in the Capitol over the state budget and the role of public employee unions. When Madison and our Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, it was exactly this kind of debate and the media coverage it has generated that they had in mind.

During Sunshine Week in your communities you may see media reports using documents obtained under the Wisconsin Open Records Law, schools teaching students about government transparency, and libraries hosting lectures on the public’s right to know.

On March 16, the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will deliver a birthday cake to the state Capitol press room to honor Madison and the journalists who report on our state government. We have invited Gov. Scott Walker to join us.

Further, the Madison SPJ chapter has encouraged Gov. Walker to commit his administration to openness by declaring March 13-19 Sunshine Week in Wisconsin.

A proposed proclamation submitted to the governor reads in part, “an open and accessible government is vital to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and in the government’s ability to effectively serve its citizens.”

The proclamation further calls for all state deliberative bodies and their committees to be open to the public. This is especially important now as the governor is creating the new public-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to replace the Department of Commerce, splitting the UW-Madison from the University of Wisconsin System, and backing a statewide board to grant school charters.

In Madison, the local SPJ chapter has also asked Dane County executive Kathleen Falk and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to make a similar proclamation. We invite you to ask your local leaders for a similar commitment during this Sunshine Week.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Freedom of Information Council (, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Mark Pitsch, a council member, is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.