Citizen’s Right to Know/Citizen Participation
The League’s History
The League has long worked for the citizen’s right to know and for broad citizen participation in government. League support for open meetings was first made explicit in the 1972 Congress position; in 1973, Leagues were empowered to apply that position at the state and local levels. In 1974, the Convention added to the League Principles the requisite that “government bodies protect the citizen’s right to know by giving adequate notice of proposed actions, holding open meetings and making public records accessible,” and decided that Leagues could act on the Principles – with the necessary safeguards of member understanding and support. The League supported the 1976 Government in the Sunshine law to enhance citizens’ access to information.
In the 1980s, the League monitored and lobbied to revamp the way federal rules and regulations are made. The League supports broad public participation at every stage of the rule-making process.
The LWVUS, in coalition with numerous other organizations, opposed 1983 efforts by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to restrict the political advocacy activities of nonprofit organizations and thereby limit citizen participation in federal policy making. The coalition’s opposition resulted in a much less onerous OMB regulation.
As part of its concerns about citizen rights, the League supports lobbying disclosure reform to provide information on the pressures exerted on the national policy-making process and guarantee citizen access to influence the process.
Early in 1995, as part of the “Contract with America,” the congressional leadership launched a broad attack on citizen participation in government decision making. Under the guise of “regulatory reform,” bills were introduced to make it much more difficult for federal agencies to promulgate regulations dealing with health, safety and the environment. These bills were based on the premise that regulations should be judged solely on their cost to the public and private sectors, and not on their benefits to society.
The League responded quickly to this major threat, lobbying both houses of Congress in opposition. Along with members of 200 other consumer, environmental and disability rights organizations, League members met with their members of Congress and participated in media activities opposing these efforts. The opposition succeeded in stalling all regulatory reform legislation in the Senate in 1996.
The League also responded to a major congressional attack in the 104th Congress, when an amendment to severely limit the ability of nonprofits to speak out on public policy matters was added to several 1996 appropriations bills. Known as the Istook amendment after its primary sponsor, Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, the amendment was designed to limit citizen participation by forcing nonprofits to choose between community service and public policy.
The League, with hundreds of other nonprofits, organized a massive campaign to educate the public and members of Congress about the serious implications of this legislation. The Istook amendment eventually was dropped from the appropriations bills, but similar efforts continued in the 104th and 105th Congresses. The League continues to monitor attempts to gag nonprofit organizations.
In June 2000, the LWVUS urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue requirements for broadcasters to cover local public affairs.
Since 2001, the LWVEF, working through a grant from the Open Society Institute, has participated in the Judicial Independence Project. State and local Leagues, working in conjunction with the national office, assess the levels of judicial independence in their state and develop citizen education campaigns to educate their communities about this important issue. A key part of this program is encouraging Leagues to include judicial candidates in their voter guides and to organize candidate forums for judicial candidates. In 2002 and 2003, more than 200 Leagues nationwide organized 70 forums, meetings and workshops spotlighting their state court systems and the value of an independent judiciary.
This project continued in 2004-2008 and evolved into Safeguarding U.S. Democracy: Promoting an Independent Judiciary, a program to increase citizen understanding of the importance of our nation’s system of separation of powers and highlight the vital need for protecting a vibrant and independent judiciary. In 2009 and 2010, the project gained a new focus on promoting diversity at all levels of the state judiciary. In the first year of “The Quest for a More Diverse Judiciary,” the Leagues in Kansas worked on this initiative and saw success in the new appointments that followed. In the second year, South Carolina was added and was very successful.
In 2002 and 2004, the LWVUS participated as amicus curiae in the case of Miller-El v. Cockrell. The League’s interest in the case focused on the use of race-based peremptory challenges to jurors as a means to block citizen participation in government. The Supreme Court agreed with the League’s position, but a lower federal court failed to carry out this interpretation and the case was once again before the Supreme Court in late 2004.
In the 109th Congress, the LWVUS endorsed the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government (OPEN) Act which expands the accessibility and account-ability of the federal government by strengthening the Freedom of Information Act and making information more readily available to the public.
The LWVEF has engaged in a number of efforts to assist Leagues in this area, and also to become more visible in federal transparency efforts. In 2005, the League launched “Openness in Government: Looking for the Sunshine,” a project to broaden public awareness about the issues involved in, and the threats related to, accountability and transparency in government. The League developed educational materials about federal, state and local laws concerning citizen access, the extent and types of threats to these laws that have occurred in recent years, and data on the increasing levels of information being put off-limits since 9-11. The project was continued in 2006, under the name “Observing Your Government in Action: Protecting Your Right to Know.”
Additional projects were initiated in the following years. One focused on public document audits, providing financial support to Leagues in 11 states and a toolkit, “Surveying Public Documents: Protecting Your Right to Know.” In 2010, work started on an online resource called “Sunshine 2.0,” which will provide criteria for assessing the transparency of local government websites and other online technologies.
At the federal level, the League has been active in providing advice to the Obama Administration as it proceeds to implement its Openness in Government Directive. In so doing, we have also helped a number of good government groups work together.
The League has served as a cosponsor of the annual “Sunshine Week” since 2006, taking part in kickoff events in Washington, DC. “Sunshine Week” sponsors a nationwide live webcast to stimulate public discussion about why open government is important to everyone and why it is under challenge today. Leagues are encouraged to participate.
The League’s Position
Statement of Position on the Citizen’s Right to Know/Citizen Participation, as Announced by National Board, June 1984:
The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that democratic government depends upon informed and active participation at all levels of government. The League further believes that governmental bodies must protect the citizen’s right to know by giving adequate notice of proposed actions, holding open meetings and making public records accessible.