Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

2.17.2010

State Secrets?

By Dave A
I'm torn. Secret governments or open governments? It doesn't seem like it should be a tough choice. I'm forced to think about this because of yet another important story from the Chicago Tribune. Today the Tribune reported that many of Illinois' 59 senators participated in a private (no members of the public or press were allowed) "joint caucus" to hear presentations on budgeting and the economy from national experts (http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/clout_st/2010/02/illinois-senate-meets-in-secret-today.html). Legislative leaders from both parties claimed this gathering, while rare, is perfectly legal. Presumably they were silent on whether it violated good governance principles. It seems to me that once again, our elected officials are demonstrating their contempt for those they govern by acting in secret. Whether it's private meetings by the party leaders to determine the marching orders which become law with little or no public debate or endless denials of Freedom of Information Requests, Illinois elected and appointed officials routinely act as if they are our masters rather than our public servants.

If I feel so strongly, why am I torn on this issue? Simply put, I'm fond of pointing out periodically that our founding fathers met in secret in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention. In fact, they went so far as to post guards and they closed windows (during a sweltering summer in a time before air conditioning) to enable that generation of leaders to speak frankly without worry that an eavesdropper or member of the press might embarrass them. This gathering yielded, arguably, one the greatest political documents ever written and the brilliant and dedicated men who wrote it recognized how politics might preempt their efforts and they took the bold, anti-democratic, step of debating in private. The results (save for the shameful compromise on slavery) were, in my mind, miraculous and a gift to mankind.

With that said, I think the Illinois legislative leaders erred. We live in a time of deep discontent and dissatisfaction with government officials at the same time (or perhaps because of the fact) that government has never before in America had as much control over each of our lives than it does now. Our government is established "of the people, by the people and for the people" and to leave people out of vital discussions on budget and economic issues when the state is in deep debt and near fiscal ruin, simply doesn't serve Illinois citizens. The founding fathers got away with meeting in secrecy but it's important to note that they weren't operating under a law which mandates that government meetings be open to the public. These laws serve the vital purpose of exposing elected and appointed officials to the illumination of transparency - they help build confidence in the system by exposing logic and illogic, altruism and personal gain. Ultimately, transparency requires them to articulate their beliefs, ask their questions and vote in a way that their masters - the public - have a chance to measure their decisions and capabilities. Had the founders had such a law, I've no doubt that they'd have followed it though I acknowledge it might have changed their work-product.

Of course, this isn't all theory. The practical impact of this is the precedent this sets for future legislative actions. What other secret meetings will be justified with the same rationale (a "joint caucus")? How far can they take it? It's important for each of us to decide for ourselves what we expect of our leaders and how we intend to hold them accountable.

I vote for no more state secrets. How about you?

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at



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Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

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Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project


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