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 Wimmers 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 Banduras social learning theory suggests is essential for attitude and behavioral change.
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, owners 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.
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.
Students create and submit public records request letters (online generator for each state at www.splc.org). 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.
Students work to get the records. A progress report is due at week 6.
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.
Im 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!