A century of sunlight and transparency, courtesy of Louis Brandeis

Lights play an important role in most winter holidays. Celebrants burn Yule logs, place stars atop trees and light candles to hold back the darkness during these longest nights. Perhaps, then, it was no coincidence that a century of “sunlight” was born at this time of year.

On Dec. 20, 1913, Harper’s Weekly published “What Publicity Can Do” by then-future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis. In it, he painted an image of transparency that still captures the imagination. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman,” he wrote.

Brandeis was concerned about a worrisome concentration of wealth and power in the hands of his era’s banks and industries. Parallels to the last few years require no elaboration.

Americans soon realized that his idea of sunlight could be applied more broadly. Government also functions best under public scrutiny. The chummy club of good ol’ boys who met behind closed doors and emerged only with conclusions would soon fade from the norm. Transparency and accountability became the new paradigm for government.

Louis Brandeis, via Brandeis University.

Louis Brandeis, via Brandeis University.

Today we might call Brandeis’ metaphor a meme, an infectious idea that flourishes. Journalists and other government watchdogs often quote him. We mark Sunshine Week in the spring. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and Sunshine in Government Initiative fight for the people’s right to know what government does. All 50 states have sunshine laws, as does the federal government, not least the Freedom of Information Act.

Sunlight is on the defensive

In recent years, though, sunlight is on the defensive against government agencies and lawmakers who fear disclosure and seek to allow greater secrecy.

When a writer for National Review Online asked the National Park Service for public records related to closing George Washington’s Mount Vernon home during the recent federal government shutdown, she hit a wall. The Department of the Interior, of which the Park Service is a branch, ran a black marker over the most interesting passages. It “redacted” them in the parlance of open government.

Interior justified its secrecy because “public dissemination of this information would have a chilling effect on the agency’s deliberative process; it would expose the agency’s decision-making process in such a way as to discourage candid discussion within the agency.”

That, of course, is the whole point of government sunlight. If officials are embarrassed to let the public know how they reach decisions, they should reconsider whether they are making the right ones.

Woodrow Wilson was a big fan of sunlight all the way back in 1884

Brandeis was not the first to suggest shining light on secrets. In 1884, Woodrow Wilson, who would appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916, wrote, “Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere – light thrown upon every detail of administration in the departments; light diffused through every passage of policy; light blazed full upon every feature of legislation; light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government, drive away all darkness from the treasury vaults.”

He missed only the warm appeal of the sun. Three decades later Brandeis’ sunlight metaphor captured a place in our collective psyche, even if many people today do not even know who authored it.

Brandeis led a tremendously accomplished life and sits in the pantheon of great American jurists. At this centennial, he deserves special recognition for an idea that endures and still shapes the way we think about the relationship between government and the people.

Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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36 Responses to “A century of sunlight and transparency, courtesy of Louis Brandeis”

  1. PickyProfessor says:

    Sunlight is powerful and important — without it the US would have become a corrupt mess 100 years ago. And Brandeis is one of my personal heroes. But it’s important to keep in mind that there can be too much of a good thing, and sunlight is no exception. To illustrate: They now report the minutes of Fed policy-making-meetings relatively soon after each meeting. Turns out that the decision-makers no longer talk as candidly (according to careful research). People who attend these meetings tell me that the decision-makers now come with prepared points and largely stick to them — there’s less searching for common ground, brainstorming for solutions that satisfy everyone, etc.
    To be clear — this is an abstract point. It is not intended to justify the Obama administration’s wall of silence or any specific current situation.

  2. Badgerite says:

    North Korea is.

  3. arcadesproject says:

    Yes. We are on lock down. And like slowly boiled frogs, most of us don’t even know that anything unpleasant has happened.

  4. arcadesproject says:

    Yes. And where are the Brandeis-es of yesteryear?

  5. profxfiles says:

    Easily one of the five smartest men to ever sit on the federal bench and a beacon of modern Progressive thinking at a time when several members of the Supreme Court were trying place strict limits on all kinds of freedoms.

  6. karmanot says:


  7. lynchie says:

    Every single thing we write and talk about is recorded. Video monitors line our streets. Every purchase you make is logged. You are searched as you travel and kept track of with our phones through GPS. If that isn’t lock down I don’t know what is.

  8. Whitewitch says:

    Me either goulo…I just feel driven to say something really inane to them…I am going to get help for it after the first of the year.

  9. Whitewitch says:

    Well Karmanot – I think I just found my presidential candidate (write-in) – you! I totally am for rattling the cage whenever and were ever possible. It is my hope to someday retire and do this blogging/commenting thing all day!!!!

    I think the Duck Dynasty thing is really a matter again of the scapegoating thing we see going on – see there, there are the people who are weird and different.

    I have to agree with you about where our country is heading and I am sad about that and I think all this pointing at “others” is part of the oligarchic’s plan to keep us focused on that rather that the police state springing up around us.

    I actually read someone who posted on an article about the New Mexico woman who was stripped, searched, x-rayed and forced to defecate in front of the police that it was her fault for associating with an illegal alien who had been deported to Mexico…that is how crazy it is getting. People desperately want to find a reason that happened to her and point to the “others” as the excuse – see it can’t happen to me.

    BUT it can happen to you and me and then….soooo scary.

    Sorry to babble…

  10. karmanot says:

    That’s a new one….necro hotties!

  11. karmanot says:

    You have a good point and a very crucial conundrum for a healthy Democracy. During my professional working years I was putting in ten to twelve hours days and too exhausted at the end of the day to do much about politics except vote. I did keep informed though and never forgot my radical student days and importance of liberalism for an advanced society. When I retired I applied my research skills to writing essays on a political blog. I’ve come to the conclusion that America is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchic republic heading for neo-fascism and a police state similar to Singapore. That doesn’t stop me from rattling every cage available. The feeling of hopelessness and the struggle for basic survival of the Democratic base and it’s traumatized middle class underlies the opinion that the old Democratic Party is no longer viable. The fact that Duck Dynasty attracts 14 million viewers simply confirms Lynchi’s belief that a significant number of Americans are cretins.

  12. cole3244 says:

    there is no one on the scotus you can compare to brandeis or that has his sense of justice.

    many of the liberal judges were put on the court by accident but that will never happen today regardless of the the party in power and that does not bode well for our democratic process.

  13. karmanot says:

    Thanks Goulo. I couldn’t help myself.

  14. goulo says:

    There’s no point replying to spambots; just flag them.

  15. karmanot says:

    “and stuff like that there.” You betcha.

  16. karmanot says:

    Above you said it was your Auntie Grifter. Which is it?

  17. It could be, for it was the “Jewish” seat from which Abe Fortas had resigned. Harry Blackmun, a Methodist, eventually filled it. Later Bill Clinton put Stephen Breyer on it.
    Had Lyndon Johnson been smart in 1968, he would have heeded Earl Warren and elevated William Brennan and brought back Arthur Goldberg to replace the seat. Then Fortas might not have left, or at least William Rehnquist would never had been on the Supreme Court.

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  19. Badgerite says:

    The World Wide Web IS from America, is it not?
    The Arab Spring has had mixed results so far. In Tunisia there have been assassinations of secular leaders precisely because they ARE secular leaders.
    Syria? What’s to say about that.
    Brunei ( oil rich sultanate) recently instituted Sharia law.
    Egypt’s experiment in Rule of the Muslim Brotherhood ran the country into the ground and ended up failing in the long run.
    And Iraq, even though the US is gone (maybe because the US is gone) is engaged again in a low level civil war. Historically speaking, Nixon was never rehabilitated. It is just that he sometimes compares favorably, in terms of domestic policy, with the bat shit insane contingent of the GOP that we have these days.

  20. Badgerite says:

    Lock down? North Korea is a country in lock down.

  21. Whitewitch says:

    Hi caphillprof…I suspect you are trying to make a point, however, I do not not what that is. Posting a one liner without clarifying it is not helpful either…and you do us a disservice indeed.

    So share…what mean thee.

  22. Whitewitch says:

    ….here in San Diego we don’t hang out in the lunchroom much – we are all working through lunch trying to keep our jobs by working more and with fewer people.

    Sorry your lunchroom is full of such silliness.

    I hear you…and I totally feel you.

    It can see so hopeless at times…yet we can just do as best we can…the powers of the Corporation are the problem really – not the lack of power and hopelessness of the people. So maybe we could cut the people a bit of slack right now and just say the truth about the 1% and Corporations.

    We agree though generally…Peace my friend.

  23. lynchie says:

    We are all trying to get to the next paycheck and I will give you that survival is harder than ever, but listening to the people in the lunch room Kardashians, Beiber, etc are all they discuss. They have no interest in whether Congress cares about them, no interest in going to a town hall and voicing an opinion and yes maybe they have given up. But that is what the 1% want. As far as calling you ignorant and stupid I of course meant the general population not u specifically. I wasn’t trying to be helpful for I fear there is nothing we can do. I was making an observation which I think covers the issues. The post is about sunlight and the lack of curiosity about what is happening leads to more and more loss of freedoms.

  24. Whitewitch says:

    I am so glad you shared this quote…I suppose the mediocre should have judges as well, and thankfully now they do – don’t they?

    I love reading about the early 1900’s and the labor movement, sadly it is a lack of time that prevents me of just getting on the computer and reading till my eyes fall shut.

  25. Monoceros Forth says:

    Gene Debs…now there was a fascinating and somewhat tragic figure. The history of the American labor movement is something which I know far too little about, but judging from what I do know, I daresay that the country was worse off for the defeat of Debs and his colleague Bill Haywood and the success of the more conservative Samuel Gompers. We’d come to a crossroads back then and turned the wrong way.

    Incidentally, the name of Brandeis brings to mind an infamous statement of Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska back when Dick Nixon was trying to get Harrold Carswell onto the Supreme Court. Carswell’s record was dodgy in the extreme–he was an unregenerate Southern racist for one thing–and his nomination went down in flames, but not before Sen. Hruska defended him thus:

    So what if he is mediocre? There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises, Cardozos, and Frankfurters and stuff like that there.

    (Was it coincidence by the way that all three justices to whom Sen. Hruska referred as “stuff” were Jewish?)

  26. Whitewitch says:

    I think it is easy to fall into the trap of saying that the average citizen only wants their daily dose of “insert words here”. You are saying the same thing many on the other side say about “low information voters”.

    I think it is so much more complicated than that….I barely am able to participate here and have learned alot from fellow bloggers, however a great deal of my time is spent trying to stay afloat, working, paying bills, worrying about how I am going to make it to the next pay check…and there are many far worse off than me who work two and three jobs, have small children in the house and are too busy juggling to give a shit about the Kardashians or Bieber (I frankly don’t even know who these people are…except they are often in the news and referred to by people like you who point out how simple minded We Americans Are.

    We serve no one by pointing to people and implying they don’t care. I would bet they do care a great deal and are just too damned tired to do anything about it.

    When you see the hubbub about Kardashian or Bieber remember there are people like me who don’t care, don’t know and are just trying to make it to the next paycheck…insulting me and calling US “ignorant and stupid” is not really helpful.

  27. lynchie says:

    Not a single Congress man or anyone in the WH wants sunlight to show what they are up to and what they have been up to for the last 50 years. We are a country in lock down. There are no freedoms which come without a huge fight from the government and corporate america which owns the government. The average citizen does not have the time to read, is not curious about finding the truth and largely ignorant and stupid. They want their daily dose of the Kardashians, Bieber, couple of shootings to wring their hands over as they buy a couple of thousand more rounds, the communist in the WH, and their Sunday football to tide them over the weekend. Sunlight, hell the average american has no clue what the word even means when it comes to the government and corporate activity.

  28. Whitewitch says:

    You guys….

    He is cute……

    Thanks for sharing this – I did not know about Mr. Brandeis. I love learning about new people – this week has included two Mr. Brandeis and EV Debs.

  29. lynchie says:

    They remember 2001-2009 as an age when their unrestricted greed could flourish. Our minds were taken off the rape by the financial institutions by fighting a meaningless war so the killing corporations could profit. Our attention was focused on whether our children or cousins or neighbors kids were being killed and maimed fighting a fruitless excercise which was a giant circle jerk for W, Cheney. Rumsfeld and the whole congress. We were fed daily doses of how Al Quaida was in Irag–no proof, WMD’s behind every door–none found and meanwhile banks, Wall Street were looting the middle class and poor.
    W will have history rewritten about him like Ronnie Raygun they were both the defenders of our freedom don’t you know. W will live in memory for this quote at a fund raiser when he said, ” I am so happy to be here among you—the haves and the have mores.”

  30. He really was. That was why I picked that photo, though they all were nice. There’s something surprising about finding people long-dead to be hot.

  31. Monoceros Forth says:

    Sunlight is under attack in the US but it is coming to the rest of the World through the World Wide Web.

    But the Internet is only as free as its carriers permit it to be. It’s well to speak of “the World Wide Web” as if it were something that’s just there, as though it were air (or indeed sunlight), but the ability to access the Internet is controlled by an increasingly small number of corporate powers. I’d be happier if there were some truly independent communications network because really the Internet isn’t it, not any more.

    But I suspect W.’s reputation will sink rather than rise as the number of Republican politicians with an interest in defending his failed presidency dwindles.

    God I hope you’re right. There have been some half-assed attempts to foster nostalgia for Lil’ Bush’s presidency (“Miss me yet?”) and I’m sure there’s still a diehard core of devotees who will always remember 2001-2009 as a golden age of prosperity and American might before that dusky person ruined it for all of us.

    Cheney’s a bit different, though. Bush Jr. seems content to remain obscure now that he’s relieved of the difficult obligation of appearing sober in public but Cheney has refused to go away, slithering again and again out from under his rock to tell everyone that Obama’s a weakling and not a tough manly warrior like himself. Cheney is like Nixon in that regard; if Nixon came to be “rehabilitated” it was largely because he kept writing and speaking in public and hobnobbing with world figures.

  32. caphillprof says:

    I think you do a disservice when you do not explain that Mount Vernon is not federally owned and the Park Service nevertheless attempted to barricade it’s parking lots during the shutdown.

  33. heimaey says:

    He was handsome.

  34. Indigo says:

    Right but . . . The problem is evolving into an antiquarian issue that was formulated a hundred years ago. Technology has moved in unexpected directions, transparency has been sidelined by electronic snooping, gerrymandering (another late 19th, early 20th century issue) has returned in full force and, worryingly, the social atmospherics supporting Big Brother are virtually incorporated into today’s cybernetic infrastructure. High sounding words from yesteryear do not really address the facts as they hover beyond the focus of Corporate America. We are challenged to rise to the occasion but so far, all we’ve got is a few whistleblowers and the indignation of the cybergeekery. That’s not enough.

  35. MyrddinWilt says:

    Sunlight is under attack in the US but it is coming to the rest of the World through the World Wide Web.

    The Web and the camera phone were the drivers of the Arab Spring. They are also the reason that Murdoch’s is now considered a discredited right wing propaganda machine even in the establishment. It took them a long time to work it out but even the establishment media has turned on them.

    Jon Stewart also deserves much credit. But I strongly suspect that without the Web, Jon Stewart would have been fired long ago. Just like the establishment shut down Soap and shut out progressive voices from the talk shows.

    The reason sunlight is under renewed attack in the US is because it is becoming more effective. It is not just the NSA that has an information bonanza. We find out about corruption earlier, as it is happening. Most of what happened under Bush happened under Reagan and Nixon but we only found out that the CIA was helping murder pro-Democracy activists in Latin America long after Reagan left office, we only just got official confirmation that the CIA helped Saddam use chemical weapons against Iran.

    Bush and Cheney acted on the assumption that their crimes in office would be covered up and they would live out their days as respected elder statesmen. Even Nixon was rehabilitated in the end. But I suspect W.’s reputation will sink rather than rise as the number of Republican politicians with an interest in defending his failed presidency dwindles.

  36. Dredd Blog says:

    Justice Brandeis helped us remember, among other things, that we all live under the same Sun.

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