Nearly 25 years ago the fledgling Minnesota Coalition on Government Information adopted the mission to advocate for systemic change in policies and practices that support open government at the state and local levels. The first action of the Coalition was to sponsor an annual event and award to promote awareness of the public’s right to know information by and about their government.
Echoing initiatives at the federal level the Minnesota Coalition members decided to celebrate Freedom of Information Day on March 16, a date chosen to honor the life and work of James Madison, key framer of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
A corollary decision by the Coalition was to annually honor a Minnesota individual or organization that had taken a lead in support of open government. When the question came to naming the state’s Freedom of Information Award the decision was both unanimous and from the heart.
John R. Finnegan, crusader for open government, was our hero – more than a symbol, intrepid toiler in the thorny bramble of bureaucratic and legislative resistance. It was John who stood out to Coalition members who recognized John’s vision, leadership and unstinting efforts to tackle the devil in the details of crafting – and adopting — laws and policies ensure the public right to information by and about their government.
John’s proactive defense of open government flowed from his experience as a leader in journalism at the local and national levels where he stood, alone at times, as a defender of the First Amendment and the right to know. His gaze never wavered from the legislative and bureaucratic predilection to ignore or evade the Minnesota’s laws and policies relating to open meeting, data practices and the need for constant oversight.
At the national level, John’s voice rose about the din. In 2011 when he was inducted into the Freedom of Information Hall of Fame John delivered a brilliant defense of freedom of information that moved an audience to their feet. His words delivered on that day will be remembered.
Though it is acknowledged that John had a “trunkful of awards,” the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award is unique. This award is not for but about its namesake. Each year on Freedom of Information Day the award will honor the life and inestimable contributions of John R. Finnegan, a man I have long described as Minnesota’s Patron Saint of open government. John’s was a good life well lived defending the rights of the governed in an informed democracy.