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North Carolina General Assembly recipient of Black Hole Award


Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair, jodispottedbear@gmail.com
Kim Tsuyuki, SPJ Communications Specialist, ktsuyuki@hq.spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is giving its annual Black Hole Award to the North Carolina General Assembly for violating the public’s right to know in the change of the state’s public records law.

The Black Hole Award is bestowed annually upon government institutions or agencies for acts of outright contempt of the public’s right to know. The recipient is announced during Sunshine Week each year.

“The North Carolina law worsens a national patchwork of threats to state government transparency,” said SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member Howard Goldberg, a retired Associated Press bureau chief who noted that the news agency for years has been denied public records access to some state lawmakers’ office calendars and correspondence. “Legislatures in effect are exempting themselves from accountability to citizens who want to know how their laws are made and who is influencing their lawmakers,” said Goldberg.

In fall 2023, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed its state budget that included a new law that exempts state lawmakers from the state’s public records law. This means it is entirely up to North Carolina lawmakers to decide what public records, if any, to reveal. The governor and other members of the Council of State, elected by voters statewide, are still subject to public records law.

The budget also repealed the law requiring redistricting draft maps and communications to be made publicly available. Previously, communications created during the legislative redistricting process became public once the new maps became law.

"The core spirit of Sunshine Week is to uphold the most important principle of democracy, that the people are always in charge of their government,” said Sterling Cosper, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-chair. “This oversight does not just begin and end with elections but rather should happen all day every day. Citizens are the bosses and it is not becoming of their elected employees to dictate to them without consultation what information they have a right to when it comes to their money and vote. The assembly netted a hattrick of unethical and shadowy governance by introducing a measure to hide their day-to-day decisions with taxpayer dollars, and the process for redrawing the election map that affects their party’s job security as well as the citizens’ right to choose all within the annual budget, essentially holding it hostage for these provisions and disallowing the government to continue properly providing services,” said Cosper.

Opposition to this legislative change comes from both Democrats and Republicans. The John Locke Foundation has urged lawmakers to overturn it in an open letter. Attorney General Josh Stein, the Democratic nominee for North Carolina Governor, told The News & Observer, “I think the records belong to the people, and that people have a right to them. And the legislature is saying that rule applies to all of state government, ‘save us, we are somehow different.’”

“North Carolina lawmakers set another dangerous precedent by shirking their moral and constitutional duties as public employees to inform their constituents what they are doing with taxpayer time and money while on the clock,” said Tim Gruver, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee member.

The 2024 legislative short session begins next month; no Republican lawmaker has called for a change in the records law.

“Lawmakers give new meaning to North Carolina’s First in Flight slogan,” said Jodi Rave Spotted Bear, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair. “They changed public records laws to avoid having to comply with them. State leaders now soar in the spirit of the Black Hole Award, an egregious recognition earned by trampling on the public right to information.”

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.


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