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FOI Committee
This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Freedom of Information Committee Chair

David Cuillier
Assistant Professor
Department of Journalism
University of Arizona
Marshall Building, Room 323
Tucson, Ariz. 85721-0158
Work: 520/626-9694
Fax: 520/621-7557
Bio (click to expand) David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he researches and teaches access to public records, and is co-author with Charles Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." He served as FOI chair 2007-11 before becoming a national officer and serving as SPJ president in 2013-14.

Before entering academia, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Pacific Northwest. He has testified before Congress on FOI issues twice and provides newsroom training in access on behalf of SPJ. His long-term goal is to see a unified coalition of journalism organizations fighting for press freedom and funded through an endowed FOI war chest.

FOI Committee Members

Sonny Albarado
Projects Editor
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
121 E. Capitol Ave.
Little Rock, AR 72201
Work: 501-244-4321
Fax: 501-372-4765
Bio (click to expand) picture As projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Sonny Albarado supervises reporters on investigative and explanatory journalism assignments. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La.

His 37-year journalism career includes lengthy sojourns in Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn. He has been a reporter, an assistant city editor, a business editor (twice), a projects editor (twice) and a news editor. He also briefly edited a trade magazine dedicated to the coin-operated amusement industry.

He has been involved in the defense of the First Amendment and the free flow of information since his days as editor of his college’s student newspaper. A member of SPJ since 1979, he is currently a member of the national board of directors from Region 12 (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee).

All awards he’s received have been the result of good editors when he was a reporter and excellent reporters since he’s been an editor.

Carolyn S. Carlson
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication
Kennesaw State University
Kennesaw, GA 30114-5591
Bio (click to expand) picture Carolyn S. Carlson is co-chairman of the SPJ FOI Committee’s Subcommittee On Campus Crime. For the past decade, she has been a leader in the effort to improve public access to records involving student discipline and crime on the nation’s college campuses. She founded the multi-organizational Campus Courts Task Force, which received an SPJ Freedom of Information Award in 1998 for its success in changing federal law to increase public access to college disciplinary records involving serious crime. Carlson has a doctorate from Georgia State University. She is an assistant professor of journalism and citizen media at Kennesaw State University. She is a former political press secretary and a longtime reporter and editor for The Associated Press. She was national president of SPJ in 1989-1990, chaired the SPJ Ethics Committee in 1993-94, received SPJ’s Wells Key in 1994, and was named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers in 2002, 2005 and 2006.

David Chartrand
Bio (click to expand) picture The humor and commentary of David Chartrand have appeared in publications throughout North America. His essays on families, children, education, and health issues are distributed to daily newspapers by Universal Press Syndicate as well as by his own distribution company.

David has confronted numerous First Amendment, Freedom of Information, and public-access issues during coverage of local and state government, as well as public schools.

His Web site is

David is the author of, “A View from the Heartland” (2003, Globe-Pequot Press), a collection of stories and essays about midwestern families and the resiliency of the human spirit. He currently is completing work on a work of narrative nonfiction that examines attitudes toward mental illness in successful, middle-class communities.

In 2002, David received a First Place Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL book series, says that David Chartrand’s writing “embraces the mundane, everyday things that make us laugh, weep or pound the table in frustration.” David’s 1994 essay, "A Father's Letter to Santa" was included in CHICKEN SOUP: A CHRISTMAS TREASURY, where the publishers cited it as among the most memorable Christmas essays of all time.

David is a 1975 Kansas State University journalism graduate and a member of the journalism school’s advisory board.

Jodi Cleesattle
Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice
San Diego, CA
Bio (click to expand) picture Jodi Cleesattle is a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where she works in the Civil Division in San Diego. Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office, she was a partner at Ross, Dixon & Bell, LLP, in San Diego, where she handled media law cases and other commercial litigation. Jodi previously worked as a daily news reporter for The Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette, covering politics and legal issues, and was founding editor of The National Jurist, a national magazine for law students. Jodi serves on SPJ's national board as Region 11 director and on SPJ’s national FOI Committee and Legal Defense Fund Committee. She is SPJ Project Sunshine Chair for Southern California and a board member of the SPJ San Diego Pro Chapter and was president of the San Diego Pro Chapter from 2007-09. She also serves as editor of Lawyers Club News, the monthly newsletter of Lawyers Club of San Diego, a bar association dedicated to the advancement of women in the law and society, and she freelances for San Diego Lawyer magazine.

Charles Davis
Bio (click to expand) picture Charles N. Davis is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Davis worked for nearly ten years as a journalist, working for newspapers, magazines and a news service in Georgia and Florida. As a national correspondent for Lafferty Publications, a Dublin-based news wire service for UK publications, Davis reported from the US on banking, international finance and regulatory issues for seven years before leaving full-time journalism to seek a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Florida.

At Florida, Davis served as a research fellow in the College of Journalism and Communication’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, assisting reporters and citizens with FOI questions at the state and federal level. He earned his Ph.D. in 1995 and has since taught at Georgia Southern University and Southern Methodist University before joining the MU faculty in 1999.

Mike Farrell
Bio (click to expand) picture Mike Farrell serves as director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and as an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He began teaching as an adjunct in 1980 at Northern Kentucky University, continued as a graduate teaching assistant at UK in 1996, and has been a full-time faculty member there since 2000. He won the college teaching award in 2006.

He teaches reporting, media ethics, media law, journalism history, editing, media law, covering religion news and column writing.

He was a reporter, city editor and managing editor during a 20-year career at The Kentucky Post.

A native of Northern Kentucky, he earned his undergraduate degree at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees at UK, where he focused on media law. He is a member of the Bluegrass Chapter and co-adviser of the UK student chapter of SPJ.

Jennifer Karchmer
Bio (click to expand) picture Jennifer Karchmer is an independent journalist who has worked in print, radio, TV and Internet-based reporting since 1991. She is a member of SPJ Western Washington Pro chapter.

In 2012, Jennifer was awarded First Place in the SPJ Northwest Excellence in Journalism Contest for her research and writing on Iceland as a free press haven. She was also awarded news citations by the Washington Press Association for her international reporting and for “The Transparency Report,” a self-produced series on the coal port proposal near Bellingham, WA.

Jennifer has worked for the Associated Press, McClatchy, Gannett and CNN. Currently, she writes for the environmental and watchdog newspaper Whatcom Watch and teaches journalism at Western Washington University.

Donald W. Meyers
Utah County Reporter
The Salt Lake Tribune
(801) 448-6106
Bio (click to expand) picture Donald W. Meyers has been at a reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune since July 2007. Prior to that, he was the editorial page editor of the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah for more than eight years, as well as having been a reporter at daily and weekly newspapers in Utah and New Jersey. He majored in Journalism at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and Brigham Young University. He is a past-president of the Utah Headliners Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists and is a member of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

Linda Petersen
Managing Editor
The Valley Journals
801-254-5974 X 17
Bio (click to expand) picture Linda Petersen is the managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of 15 free, total market coverage, monthly community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah.

She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, a citizen coalition that works to educate and advocate for open government.

A past president of the Utah Headliners pro chapter, she is currently the chapter’s FOI officer and treasurer.

For her open government advocacy, she has received the Utah Press Association John E. Jones Award, the Utah Headliners Clifford P. Cheney Service to Journalism Award and the Howard S. Dubin Outstanding Pro Chapter Member Award.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Media
Oklahoma State University
206 Paul Miller
Stillwater, OK 74078-4053
Bio (click to expand) picture Joey Senat, an associate journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, writes a blog,, for FOI Oklahoma Inc., a nonprofit representing a statewide coalition of open government advocates.

His model letter for requesting public records in Oklahoma is widely used. He also wrote a citizens guide to the state’s open records and meeting laws.

Senat has spoken on FOI, First Amendment and journalism education issues at dozens of professional and academic conferences, including the AEJMC National Conference, IRE National Conference, IRE Better Watchdog Workshops and SPJ Region 8 conferences. In summer 2012, he conducted open records training sessions across the Midwest for SPJ.

For his work to advance government transparency, Senat received the 2007 Marian Opala First Amendment Award and the 2005 Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.

Senat has been published in Quill and the IRE Journal. He reported for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and the Tulsa (Okla.) World. He earned academic degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Memphis State University and LSU.

Lynn Walsh
Bio (click to expand) picture Lynn Walsh is the investigative producer for WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Together with the Contact 5 Investigative Team, Lynn works to produce stories that hold local officials accountable and expose waste and corruption throughout the community.

A Cum Laude Graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Lynn believes in government transparency, First Amendment rights for all and government accountability on both sides of the aisle.

Her early career started as a reporter for The Government Channel in Athens, Ohio where she covered city and county issues for the citizens and students living in Athens County. Her career includes experience as an investigative video journalist for Texas Watchdog, a non-profit news website in Houston where she primarily focused her investigative pieces on the Houston Independent School District. Other media organizations where Lynn played an integral role include the website, Ohio Watchdog, The Buckeye Institute and WSYX/WTTE all located in Columbus, OH, WRGT/WKEF in Dayton, Ohio, WMAR in Baltimore, and “The Today Show” in New York City.

As a freelance blogger for the Radio Television Digital News Association, Lynn is always interested in new projects whether it is covering an event or developing a PR/Marketing Campaign.

Home > Freedom of Information > Finding that dream house without FOI nightmares

Freedom of Information
Finding that dream house without FOI nightmares

How to make access to public records relevant in reporting and law classes through a house and neighborhood document background search

By David Cuillier

Sponsored by CCJA, SPIG, Scholastic Journalism Division and International Communication Division


This assignment provides hands-on experience for reporting or media law students in learning how freedom of information laws work by digging through public documents about a house for sale. This assignment motivates students because of its practical relevancy to their careers and personal lives. By the end of the project, students demonstrate stronger support for open government.


Access to public records is essential for democracy, yet many students do not understand how to request documents or its importance in society. This assignment makes access real, relevant, and important to their lives.

Document projects have been found to improve reporting skills, such as through backgrounding individuals in a cemetery (Carol S. Lomicky 2002 GIFT grand prize winner), or conducting access audits of campus or local government agencies (see Terry Wimmer’s 2002 “Project Access” GIFT, as well as the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOI audit toolkit).

This project builds on the cemetery and government audit exercises by focusing on a subject that is relevant to students’ personal lives, thereby increasing motivation, which Bandura’s social learning theory suggests is essential for attitude and behavioral change.


Available for Download
Download a copy of the supplementary handout, "Access for Everyday Life," which contains a list of free government records that can help you buy a home, as well as links to resources that can aid the process.

Week 1
Teams of three to five students are each given the address of a house for sale in the community and told to find out as much about the house and neighborhood as they can from physically acquired public records — no Internet information or people sources. Ideally, assigned houses should be near proposed developments, airport flight paths, or a registered sex offender to better illustrate the value of records.

Students are encouraged to think of potentially useful public records on their own, but are provided a list of ideas to get them started:
• Property tax records including assessed value, owner’s name, taxes paid and square footage.
• Police reports and sex offender registries.
• Development plans, including road plans, proposed commercial development and zoning for future development.
• Parks plans.
• Airport flight pattern maps that show sound levels.
• School test scores to compare schools.
• EPA records regarding hazardous chemicals and polluted sites.
• Nuisance complaints reported to the city.

Week 2
Students research access laws, primarily state open records laws. They identify the records they will need and what agencies have them, divvying up the responsibility by agency so every student requests records.

Week 3
Students create and submit public records request letters (online generator for each state at They are instructed to take good notes through the process so they can describe what they did, how the government responded and the outcome. In class they should learn strategies for accessing records.

Weeks 4-8
Students work to get the records. A progress report is due at week 6.

Week 9
Final reports are due that include a team paper describing the neighborhood and house based on what was found in public records, as well as individual papers from each student explaining the law, what they requested, and how they handled the request. Also, students are asked to describe their attitudes toward open government and personal privacy. Teams present their findings to the class.

For a variation of this assignment, teams can access records on campus regarding topics relevant to their lives, such as crime, faculty salaries, class grade distributions, alcohol abuse and department budgets. Students at private universities, where records might be more difficult to acquire, can still do the house-buying exercise.


Students like this assignment because they become fluent in the law, learn strategies for accessing public records and feel confident in applying this knowledge to their jobs and personal lives.

Class presentations illustrate the successes and problems of access — a surly clerk who crumples a request and tosses it in the garbage, or a pleasant official who takes the afternoon to help find the information. They learn to be skeptical and are astounded at the amount of information that is available to the public.

Also, this assignment increases support for access. Pretest-postest surveys fall 2005 in a media law course found that students who did this project demonstrated greater support for open government than students who did projects on other topics, such as libel or copyright. It is uplifting to see students develop journalistic skills and principles from one assignment.

“I’m glad I got to do this because I think it is really helpful for my job and personal life in the future,” wrote one student in evaluations. Another wrote, “The thing I learned most was how much power I have in accessing information!”

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