A Sunshine Week Playlist

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Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun, and I say it’s all right

George Harrison’s song of spring is a fitting start to this Sunshine Week salute to everyday heroes bringing light to local government.

“Why do you want to know that?” is a question most reporters have heard when asking for public documents. It generally becomes a Freedom of Information teaching moment from the journalist to the reluctant keeper of records.

It goes with the territory. The press must sometimes teach Sunshine 101 to public officials on Main Street, U.S.A. This column recognizes some of those intrepid reporters and public servants with symbolic citations from my Sunshine Week playlist.

“HERE COMES THE SUN” award to Hilde Lysiak, a plucky 12-year-old reporter who made headlines on a visit to Patagonia, Arizona. Riding her bike to investigate a tip, Lysiak was stopped by Patagonia town marshal Joseph Patterson and asked for ID. Lysiak gave her name and said she was a reporter. Patterson said, “I don’t want to hear about any of that freedom of the press stuff.” Lysiak said he also threatened to put her in juvenile detention. In a second encounter, Lysiak began video-taping Patterson and said, “You stopped me earlier and said I could be thrown in juvie? What exactly am I doing that’s illegal?” Patterson warned her (inaccurately) against posting the video online. “If you put my face on the Internet, that’s against the law,” he said. Lysiak posted a YouTube video of their exchange on her Orange Street News website. She later received an apology from Patagonia mayor Andrea Wood who said the town respects her First Amendment rights.

“HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN” award to Brenda Fisk, mayor of Paint Rock, Alabama (population 200). Mayor Fisk drafted a resolution to close town board meetings to non-residents and members of the press. She told the Jackson County Sentinel, “What goes on in Paint Rock is the business of the people who live in Paint Rock.” Fisk said she had “personal reasons” for proposing the move, “but I since found out that I cannot do that.”

“I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW” award to Kirby Delauter, county councilman from Frederick, Maryland. Delauter once threatened to sue the Frederick News-Post for “unauthorized use of my name.” The newspaper responded with an editorial using his name 26 times. They also explained why newspapers in America are actually allowed to write about public officials without their permission. Delauter later apologized.

“WALKING ON SUNSHINE” award to Art Cullen, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times in Iowa. Cullen’s editorials about agricultural impact on his state’s poor water quality were not popular with some prominent Republicans. The GOP-controlled Iowa Senate stalled a resolution to recognize his national writing prize. Cullen responded, “I would not want the support of a den of philanderers and oafs.” He added, “I honestly do not care if I am ever honored by the Iowa Senate, the U.S. Congress, or any other institution of dysfunction and cynicism.”

 

Brian Hunhoff

Brian Hunhoff of the Yankton County Observer is a member of the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. He is a two-time winner of the National Newspaper Association Freedom of Information Award.