Although public access to government records and meetings is protected – with limitations - under North Carolina law, a bill in the legislature sponsored by Catawba County Rep. Mitchell Setzer would make that a right under the N.C. Constitution.
The Sunshine Amendment (House Bill 1111) would put a measure on November’s ballot allowing voters to decide whether access to government records and meetings should be protected in the North Carolina Constitution rather than only in state statutes.
The Sunshine Amendment would enshrine the public’s “right to know” (as codified by the state’s Public Records and Open Meetings laws) in the state constitution.
It would also require that any future state law aiming to reduce current levels of public access to government records and meetings only be enacted with a “supermajority” two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.
It currently only takes a majority of legislators to make it harder to see government information.
New exemptions to state open government laws are introduced every year, said John Bussian, an attorney representing the N.C. Press Association.
Bussian pointed out that are good arguments for some of the exceptions, such as not allowing the public release of floor plans of school buildings in the age of mass shootings. Others seem more directed at special interests, like rules requiring a probable-cause hearing to see complaints against some state-licensed professionals.
All the exemptions and limits in the law on Jan. 1 would still be law if the Sunshine Amendment passes, but it would be harder to make new ones and they would have to specify how they serve the public interest. They could be no broader than necessary to accomplish that goal.
Repealing exemptions would be done by a simple majority, making it harder to put up obstacles than to take them down.
The public’s right to know is sacred and there is no downside to enshrining it in the state constitution.