South Dakota’s Struggle for Transparency

In an era where transparency is often touted as a virtue by governments across the globe, South Dakota finds itself lagging in the United States, possessing some of the weakest laws for public access to state and local government records. This assessment comes from David Cuillier, a leading authority on freedom of information and the director of the Freedom of Information project at the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for the Advancement of the First Amendment.
During a teleconference organized by the South Dakota News Media Association for Sunshine Week—a week dedicated to promoting government transparency—Cuillier discussed the state of public access laws with journalists and public officials. South Dakota’s laws, he pointed out, while ostensibly promoting open access to financial records, are riddled with exemptions that restrict access to a wide array of other governmental documents. These exemptions cover everything from government correspondence and working papers to officials’ calendars and telephone call records, effectively creating a “black hole” of information opacity, as described by SDNA executive director David Bordewyk.

The 2009 legislative overhaul of South Dakota’s public-records chapter aimed to improve access and clarify that financial records should be open. However, this revision also cemented numerous exemptions into law, which Cuillier metaphorically described as “death by a thousand cuts.” Despite ranking as high as 22nd and 31st in some national studies, South Dakota’s laws ranked 44th to 50th in six others, making them some of the worst in the country according to three different evaluations.

The conversation then turned to potential improvements. Cuillier emphasized the necessity of robust laws as the foundation for ensuring public access to government records. He also encouraged journalists to bring human stories to the forefront to highlight the public’s frustrations with these restrictive laws and to report openly whenever they encounter refusals to access government records. “It’s not about the journalists,” Cuillier remarked, underscoring the broader importance of these issues, “It’s about the public.”

This stark analysis and call to action underscore the ongoing challenges and the imperative for reform in South Dakota’s public records laws, aiming for a future where government transparency isn’t just an aspiration but a reality.

South Dakota’s Struggle for Transparency

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