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EDITORIAL

Celebrating ‘Sunshine’ in the age of the coronavirus

Times of crisis require more, not less, transparency from our public officials.

Governor Charlie Baker provided an update on COVID-19 in Massachusetts on Wednesday.
Governor Charlie Baker provided an update on COVID-19 in Massachusetts on Wednesday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

These past few days of fear and uncertainty as a pandemic spreads around the world have proved, as few events in our lives ever have, that transparency matters — that faith in government and its officials is critical, especially in times of stress.

Transparency by our public officials breeds credibility. And where there is credibility and openness and truth-telling, people will listen and will follow — and in the days ahead that may mean the difference between life and death.

Perhaps not a sunny thought for this particular Sunshine Week, but one that points to the day-to-day need for keeping the public — and the press — informed about the myriad facts and figures that government collects.

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As part of this particular Sunshine Week, the Globe has joined with the New England Newspaper and Press Association to encourage newspapers throughout the country to editorialize on the importance of open government.

At the time the call went out, we didn’t anticipate the new normal that would reshape our lives and our work.

We also didn’t anticipate — or have a chance to celebrate — the Globe’s most recent public records victory before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, just last week, on two critical issues involving the public’s right to know.

The high court ruled unanimously that booking photos of judges and law enforcement officers who are arrested, and any police reports about their cases, are indeed public records.

"The public has a vital interest in ensuring transparency where the behavior of these public officials allegedly fails to comport with the heightened standards attendant to their office,'' Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote.

And in a companion case, the SJC ruled that government agencies can’t use the excuse of an electronic database to avoid complying with the state’s public records law.

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Requiring a “government entity to search its electronic database to extract requested data does not mean that the extracted data constitute the creation of a new record under the public records law,” Gants wrote in the second unanimous opinion.

The first case goes back to a 2015 lawsuit filed by the Globe involving the refusal of police departments to release police reports of officers accused of drunken driving and a report of a judge accused of stealing a $4,000 Cartier watch. In the latter case, a clerk magistrate refused to issue a criminal complaint.

“Such matters implicate not only the integrity of the public officials who allegedly engaged in criminal conduct but also the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Gants wrote.

Indeed they do.

And that’s why the Globe — and many of our journalistic brethren around the country — fight so hard to keep public records public.

But this is a fight that can’t end with one or two court victories. This is a fight that even now, as this nation and our community combat a pandemic, is ever more important to public safety.

Case in point: As of last Friday Governor Charlie Baker and his health care team insisted that the public could wait to find out how many state residents had been tested for COVID-19 until Wednesday. By Monday the Department of Public Health, rethinking that position, released the number of 1,296 and promised daily updates. By late Tuesday, those updates finally included county by county numbers.

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Yes, this is uncharted territory for public officials and for the news media, and there will always be a tugging and pulling between the two. But these times call for more openness, not less. And Sunshine Week is as good a time as any to make that happen.

Have a point of view about this? Write a letter to the editor; we’ll publish a select few. (We’re experimenting with alternatives to the comment section for creating online conversation at Globe Opinion over the next month; you can let us know what you think of our experiments here.)


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.