Citizen Journalism: Understanding the Freedom of Information Act
(Story by Carol Thompson) Both professional and citizen journalists can benefit from the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that most states have adopted.
The law provides government transparency—access to most government records. Citizen journalists, and the general public, may not be aware of the volumes of records available.
Most government agencies require a request be made in writing, however, in most states, the agency cannot compel a requester to use a particular form and cannot ask why the information is sought or how it will be used. The exception is for professional journalists who may have fees waived if disseminating information to the public. It is at the discretion of the journalist as to whether they want to share the purpose of their request, and it’s up to the agency if they want to waive any copy fees.
In today’s electronic world, many records are now available online. Some agencies may charge a fee for downloading, but much can be viewed at no charge. Documents such as meeting minutes, real estate transactions, property tax information, and budgets are generally readily available online and free.
A Research Tool for Citizen Journalists
For the citizen blogger or those with news reporting websites, accessing public records is a tool that shouldn’t be overlooked. Some of the best professional and citizen reporting is the result of government records access. While most often FOIA and FOIL are an asset, there are times when it can be a detriment.
In many states, the cell phone bills of government employees are public record as are text messages and email. If the municipality uses GPS in the vehicles that employees are allowed to take home, they can be revealing, especially when matched with the time cards of employees. Want to know what websites an employee or elected official visits from their office computer? A request for Internet cookies will show not only the websites visited, but the length of time spent on the site. Through FOIL and FOIA, one can learn what drugs are most commonly prescribed and paid for under Medicaid and Medicare.
Almost every municipality from the smallest village to the federal government requires employees and elected officials to file an annual financial disclosure that shows income, investments, and even family relationships. Matched with public bidding documents, potential conflicts-of-interest can be identified. In some states, personnel records are made public.
In some states, if a person intends to sue a government agency, a Notice of Claim or Notice of Intent must first be filed. They won’t be found poring through court records because they generally only need be filed with the municipality’s attorney.
The Smart Way to Research Public Records
How can access to public records be a detriment?
When requesting any information on a particular employee, it’s important to broaden the request to include two or three other employees. If the Freedom of Information request targets only one employee, and the employee later brings a defamation suit, it’s easier for the employee to prove malice if he or she is the only employee whose records were sought. In most states, public employees have a higher threshold to meet in a defamation case, and they must prove malice. The employee will have a stronger case if he or she was the only employee targeted in the requests, giving the appearance that the reporter or blogger was “out to get” the employee.
It can also be a detriment if only one issue is targeted. Easily tipping a government agency off as to what the focus is can lead to missing or altered records, and even denial based on the non-existence of records that the requester may well be aware exist.
Despite the fact that all government records belong to the public, it doesn’t necessarily equate to an agency’s willingness to share them. An employee who is using a government issued cell phone to make excessive personal calls won’t be overly receptive to the release of phone bills.
In one instance, two employees were found to be raking in thousands of dollars in overtime that they weren’t entitled to when a blogger obtained their time cards and GPS records and exposed hundreds of discrepancies. The employees had been collecting overtime during the hours the GPS records showed their government issued vehicles were parked at home.
FOIA and FOIL provide a window of opportunity for those interested in knowing what their local, county, state, or federal government have been up to and how taxpayers’ money is being spent.
Making Requests Under the Freedom of Information Act
Before making a request, it’s important to learn the name and contact information of the records management officer or the person in charge of managing Freedom of Information requests. Each state law provides a specific time in which a request must be answered, either by producing the record or denying the request.
If a request is denied, each agency has its own appeal process, most often through the agency’s attorney. There should be no cost for an appeal.
If the appeal is denied, the only available option is to take the matter to court.
Most states and the federal government have specific timelines for the process of appeal and to bringing a court challenge. Don’t hesitate, when making a request, to ask for the specific timelines and procedures. In many jurisdictions, a requester isn’t entitled to make a second request for the same information, although there is nothing to bar a requester from having another person make the same request. (Image: Flickr | Tony Webster)