Letting the Sun Shine: Promoting Open Government

by State Senator Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D.

In a 1932 article called What Publicity Can Do, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Brandeis was speaking of the importance of openness and transparency in government, and his words ring as true today as they did in 1932. March 14-20 marks Sunshine Week, a celebration promoting transparency at all levels of government and an important opportunity to reflect upon one of the bedrock principles of our democracy.

The principle is in fact older than the nation itself. In 1765 founding father John Adams wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.” Open government is critical to an informed public, and an informed public is critical to democracy. Sunshine Week, supported by news organizations, universities and public officials, reminds us of the importance of open meetings laws, open records and government accountability.

In a 2004 speech to a group of journalists, Mexican President Vicente Fox said, “Hoy todos estamos en una caja de cristal, porque hoy todo se ve, todo se lee, y todo se escucha.” (“Today we all find ourselves in a glass case, because now everything is seen, everything is read, and everything is heard.”)

Fox was extolling journalists’ role in keeping government accountable for its actions and for helping to root out corruption, sometimes at the expense of their lives.

Members of the media serve this function in the United States too, and Sunshine Week is an important time to acknowledge their efforts to keep our democracy healthy. In 2009 I was delighted to support the Texas Free Flow of Information Act (House Bill 670), which protects journalists’ ability to gather and report the news without unwarranted interference.

We should recognize reporters who focus on substantive issues in state government and who expose corruption and injustice when they occur. Media scrutiny, for example, played an important role in bringing abuses at the Texas Youth Commission to light, paving the way for important reforms.

Indeed, transparent and open government can save lives. Accordingly, I have always prioritized legislation that facilitates the free flow of important information. In 1989 I authored and passed Senate Bill 45, requiring child care facilities to post signs that failure to report child abuse or neglect is a crime. This demonstrates that access to even a small amount of information can go a long away, especially when it comes to protecting the very old, the very young and persons with disabilities.

Technology, too, has helped to put government on display in a virtual glass case. Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools have made elected officials more accessible to voters. The internet, meanwhile, has expanded greatly the volume, range and quality of government information that can be accessed by the public. A wealth of information regarding every state agency can be found at Texas Online (www.TexasOnline.com), our state government’s official portal. Details of the state budget are available via the Legislative Budget Board web site (www.lbb.state.tx.us), and bills filed in the Texas Legislature can be read and tracked at www.capitol.state.tx.us.

Open government works best when communication is multi-directional. Your feedback and suggestions are important. Accordingly, I maintain an open door policy and encourage constituents to contact me or my staff via 800/851-1568, [email protected], my Southern District Office in Laredo (956/722-2293) or my Northern District Office in San Antonio (210/657-0095). Helpful information regarding legislation is available via my Senate website, www.zaffirini.senate.state.tx.us.

Equally important, I invite you to participate in the Texas Open Government Conference in Austin, Nov. 22-23. The conference is an opportunity for members of the public, businesses, media, government employees and elected officials to come together and discuss the best ways to promote honest, open and transparent government in Texas.

Senator Judith Zaffirini is the Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. She holds B.S., M.A. and PhD degrees from The University of Texas, where she studied journalism and communications.

Use Respectful Language: Eliminate the “R-word”

by State Senator Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D.

Wednesday (March 3) is National “Spread the Word to End the Word” Awareness Day, offering us a rich opportunity to focus on using respectful language for persons with intellectual disabilities by eliminating the “R-word.”

Our efforts were bolstered recently when an American Psychiatric Association review panel unveiled proposed revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an influential guidebook in the mental health field. One recommended change favored by the panel is particularly overdue: eliminating all variations of the word “retarded” and replacing them with respectful language referencing persons with intellectual disabilities.

The “R-word” is extremely hurtful and demeaning to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and its use presents significant barriers to community inclusion. State governments are recognizing this belatedly and are progressing toward the universal use of respectful language: Several states voted recently to remove the R-word from statute. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is considering Rosa’s Law, a bill to eliminate the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education and labor laws.

Texas should not lag behind. In 2009 I authored legislation that would have required all variations of the word “R-word” to be removed from Texas statutes. Although SB 1395 was heard by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, it was never scheduled for a vote. I plan to re-file this respectful language legislation for the next Texas Legislative Session that will convene on Jan. 11.

When it comes to treating persons with respect, Texas should lead by example, and our leaders should too. Recently high-level advisors to Gov. Rick Perry and President Barack Obama were criticized deservedly for using the R-word inappropriately. This is not a partisan issue. It is a matter of human decency. Eliminating the R-word from our everyday and legal language would reflect our commitment to the ethic of respectful reciprocity, or what many of us know as the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Equally important, it also would reflect the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they would like to be treated. These rules are not only the way we should live our lives, but also are the best approach to public policy.

Sadly, removing outdated and disrespectful language in statutes and in dense psychiatric tomes can take a long time. The revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, for instance, will be the first in 10 years, and the process is not yet complete.

Fortunately, no legislation has to be passed for us to start eliminating the R-word from everyday speech. We can start immediately by talking with our friends and family and by participating in the National “Spread the Word to End the Word” Awareness Day on Wednesday.

To find out how you can help promote respectful language, visit http://www.r-word.org/. More than 70,000 persons have visited the site and pledged to support eliminating the R-word in their everyday speech.