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News: SPJ opposes restrictions on intelligence employees speaking to journalists
Quill: FOI Toolbox
News: SPJ surveys: Reporters say PIO controls getting worse
News: SPJ President David Cuillier to address U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about FOIA issues
Quill: From the President
Quill: FOI Toolbox
Freedom of Information
Project Sunshine: Find FOI Help
Accessing Government Records
Shield Law Campaign
FOI Audit Tookit |
Anti-SLAPP: Protect Free Speech
Official Secrets Act bill
Annual FOI Reports
FOI Committee Roster
FOI FYI: SPJs FOI Committee Blog
– Sunshine Week 2014: Two new studies released
– SPJ members discuss conflicts between reporters, government flacks at National Press Club event
– Salt Lake Tribune reporter uses web tools to let the people decide political scandal
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
The Valley Journals
801-254-5974 X 17
Bio (click to expand) 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 chapters 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.
Freedom of Information
Public & the Press
SPJ Reading Room
Universitys FOI project yields scary results
By Bill Reader
As a professor at a public university, my professional life is an open book. My résumé is public, my salary is public, my promotion and tenure file is public, students evaluations of my teaching is public, even my e-mail is public. The public has a right to see the list of phone calls I make every month, what I said for the minutes of faculty meetings, and how I spend my departments money.
I knew all of that going in to this line of work. But I sense that very few employees at public colleges really think about that transparency, and, when asked to reveal such details, often react with suspicion and resistance.
It was with that culture of confidentiality in mind that students in our campus chapter of SPJ decided to tackle an open-records audit university style.
The goal was to see how well the public four-year schools in Ohio would accommodate public-records requests. But rather than work as journalists through media-relations experts, we wanted to test Sunshine Law compliance among the rank-and-file employees of those public offices.
We expected low compliance, but certainly not to the degree we found. Having sought 88 total records across 15 campuses in the state, offices provided access to records just 41 percent of the time and 17 percent of the requests were granted only after students identified themselves and their reasons for seeking the records, which is not required under Ohios Public Records Act.
Nearly a third of the requests were denied outright, either because office workers didnt know whether a record was for the public or, sometimes, because they thought such information simply wasnt for public review. More than a quarter of the documents couldnt be obtained due to closed offices and absent personnel, even though the audit was conducted during normal business hours, and Ohio law makes the public office not a designated individual in that office responsible for providing the records.
All the records we sought were deemed to be public records by a Sunshine Law attorney of our states newspaper association. We sought the records in the offices most likely to keep that information (the law says even incomplete computer files are public record). Students were to identify themselves and their purposes only if they were told that was the only way they could gain access to the records.
Not surprisingly, the public relations folks at many of the schools were critical of our audit. One even told a major newspaper in the state that the audit was shoddily done because we didnt go straight to the media-relations office. I think that fellow missed the point and might want to treat the cause of his campuss FOI illness.
The audit itself was a great project for a campus chapter. In all, we had about two dozen members serve as auditors, reporters and editors. Because our school has students from all over the state, the students were able to do the audit over their winter break (although they made sure the university offices were supposed to be open on the days they did the audit). Because it was going to take almost a full academic year to plan, conduct, and report on the audit, and would require students to work on it during winter and spring breaks, the project worked far better for SPJ than it would have for a set class.
One thing that helped is that I had participated in three public-records audits before two in Pennsylvania, one in Ohio so I knew essentially how to set up such things, and also what problems auditors likely would face. A huge help is that I have a strong professional relationship with our state press association, the director of which was more than happy to provide free legal review of our project to make sure the records we were seeking actually were public records.
One of the challenges was helping students overcome their natural anxiety about conducting the audit and, more daunting, helping them overcome their instincts to identify themselves as reporters from the get-go. We used several role-playing training sessions (with me as the grumpy secretary) to help them practice before the audit.
The best part of the project, though, was that the whole chapter of about 75 students spent a whole year getting hands-on experience with FOI issues. And for the two dozen who worked on the project? They certainly will have a lifelong devotion to keeping the publics information public.
Bill Reader is a professor and SPJ chapter advisor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.