It was, perhaps, no coincidence that a century of “sunlight” was born during the winter holidays, when celebrants burn Yule logs, place stars atop trees and light candles to hold back the darkness during these longest nights.
On Dec. 20, 1913, Harper’s Weekly published “What Publicity Can Do” by Louis Brandeis. In it, he painted an image of transparency that still captures the imagination. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman,” he wrote.
Brandeis was concerned about a worrisome concentration of wealth and power in the hands of his era’s banks and industries. Parallels to the last few years require no elaboration.
Americans soon realized that his idea of sunlight could be applied more broadly. Government also functions best under public scrutiny.
The chummy club of good ol’ boys who met behind closed doors and emerged only with conclusions would soon fade from the norm. Transparency and accountability became the new paradigm for government.
Today we might call Brandeis’ metaphor a meme, an infectious idea that flourishes. Journalists and other government watchdogs often quote him. We mark Sunshine Week in the spring. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and Sunshine in Government Initiative fight for the people’s right to know what government does. All 50 states have sunshine laws, as does the federal government with the Freedom of Information Act.
In recent years, though, sunlight is on the defensive against government agencies and lawmakers who fear disclosure and seek to allow greater secrecy.
When a writer for National Review Online asked the National Park Service for public records related to closing George Washington’s Mount Vernon home during the recent federal government shutdown, she hit a wall. The Department of the Interior, of which the Park Service is a branch, ran a black marker over the most interesting passages. It “redacted” them in the parlance of open government.
Interior justified its secrecy because “public dissemination of this information would have a chilling effect on the agency’s deliberative process; it would expose the agency’s decision-making process in such a way as to discourage candid discussion within the agency.”
That, of course, is the whole point of government sunlight. If officials are embarrassed to let the public know how they reach decisions, they should reconsider whether they are making the right ones.
Brandeis was not the first to suggest shining light on secrets. In 1884, Woodrow Wilson, who would appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916, wrote, “Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere — light thrown upon every detail of administration in the departments; light diffused through every passage of policy; light blazed full upon every feature of legislation; light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government, drive away all darkness from the treasury vaults.”
He missed only the warm appeal of the sun. Three decades later Brandeis’ sunlight metaphor captured a place in our collective psyche, even if many people today do not even know who authored it.
Brandeis led a tremendously accomplished life and sits in the pantheon of great American jurists. At this centennial, he deserves special recognition for an idea that endures and still shapes the way we think about the relationship between government and the people.
CHRISTIAN TREJBAL is a writer based in Oregon. He chairs the Open Government Committee for the Association of Opinion Journalists.