Meanings: “Public”

May 8, 2013

“Public” means of “of or pertaining to the people,” and its etymology is straightforward from a Latin term meaning the same thing. From

public (adj.) Look up public at

mid-15c., “pertaining to the people,” from Old French public (c.1300), from Latin publicus, altered (by influence of Latin pubes “adult population, adult”) from Old Latin poplicus “pertaining to the people,” from populus “people” (see people (n.)). Meaning “open to all in the community” is from 1540s. An Old English adjective in this sense was folclic.Public enemy is attested from 1756. Public relations first recorded 1913 (after an isolated use by Thomas Jefferson in 1807). Public school is from 1570s, originally, in Britain, a grammar school endowed for the benefit of the public, but most have evolved into boarding-schools for the well-to-do. The main modern meaning in U.S., “school (usually free) provided at public expense and run by local authorities,” is attested from 1640s. For public house, see pub.

In a democracy, the idea of the “public” takes on even greater force, well captured in Lincoln’s arresting phrase the democracy is “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

For a democracy to function well (for it to be genuinely of, by and for the people) it is essential not just that there be equality of voice, but also that information about “what pertains to the people” be easily and widely available. “Transparency” has become a newish word for this feature of governance.

One fruit of the press for a more participatory democracy in the United States around the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War was the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. Most states and localities followed suit. Today have a fabric of law and policy that gives citizens a legal road to gaining public access to information held by a government its officials would rather not release, often because it would subject them to public outrage or embarrassment.  Such laws are very useful to reporters, but they are too often sidestepped and sandbagged by public officials who stall or otherwise refuse to release information that rightfully belongs to “the public.”

All this is preface to one of today’s most astonishing stories, by the New York Times’s Jim Dwyer about A 30-Month Legal Fight to Conceal E-Mails About a 95-Day Schools Chancellor. Worth reading all the way to the very end. The public wins after a very long fight, and yet is still frustrated in gaining access to information that is properly public.

As arresting as this story appears, it pales in comparison to efforts to have the federal government release all that it knows about the torture of prisoners committed by U.S. officials in violation of federal and international law.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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