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Home > Publications > Quill > Weeding the FOI garden



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Monday, August 28, 2017
Weeding the FOI garden

FOI Toolbox

By Sonny Albarado

When members of SPJ’s own Freedom of Information Committee have never heard of SPJ’s Project Sunshine or know who their state’s Sunshine Chair is, can we call the effort a failure?

Or at least in serious need of an overhaul?

The current FOI Committee, under Gideon Grudo’s guidance as chair, undertook an update of SPJ’s state-by-state FOI resource guide this spring. Early on, committee members encountered issues with out-of-date phone numbers, contact names and web addresses. It hasn’t been a simple process of verifying the information on our website.

In many instances, we discovered that the person listed as Sunshine Chair had either retired, was no longer active in FOI issues or had died. This led to questions about what Sunshine Chairs do or are supposed to do. For some this led to questions about Project Sunshine itself.

Project Sunshine began in 1990 as a volunteer driven effort “to identify threats to public access and government and to organize efforts to resist those threats,” according to the Project Sunshine page.

Where state-based FOI coalitions exist, the project’s “goal is to organize and mobilize SPJ resources to assist those efforts.”

In several states, FOI and open-government coalitions grew out of Project Sunshine activities, but it seems that in some states, the Sunshine Chair’s role and presence has withered as the FOI garden has grown with new or repurposed efforts that arose to meet specific challenges.

Arguably, SPJ needs a strong FOI presence in every state because each state’s open-records and open-meetings issues are different, even as they are all similar because they keep the public in the dark.

So, what about Sunshine Chairs?

According to SPJ’s page on Project Sunshine, each state chair should be someone in a position to learn about FOI problems and be able to alert other SPJ leaders or allied groups.

“At its core, Sunshine is a team-building program aimed at establishing a state network of FOI resources to focus attention on the access problem of the hour. That network often is called into service to work on other immediate problems, including access problems common to campus press.”

In this sense, Project Sunshine has been a success over its 27-year history. In its first decade, Sunshine Chairs helped organize broad open-government coalitions in their states. Many chairs remain very active and at the center of struggles to protect state FOI laws or to enhance them.

Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson, who was SPJ president when Project Sunshine was created, remains a strong advocate for open records and open meetings. And Deborah Fisher, who succeeded Frank as executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, is also an SPJ member.

Both of them are reliable point persons for FOI questions and issues in Tennessee.

But it is disappointing that Tennessee has no Sunshine Chair listed. Perhaps one isn’t needed.

But what about Louisiana, where the person listed as Sunshine Chair retired more than two years ago? And what about other states where the public’s access to information and public officials is under siege?

First, it would be helpful to know if Project Sunshine continues to be relevant to you and your state. What’s been your experience, what’s worked, how can it be improved, what kind of support would be most useful?

Email one of us with your thoughts:

  • FOI Chair Gideon Grudo
  • committee member Hilary Niles
  • Sonny Albarado
  • As your FOI Committee continues updating the stateby-state FOI pages, you can also help by going to SPJ’s FOI page and clicking on Find FOI In Your State. Check out the listings for FOI contacts and let the committee know if you spot seriously out-of-date information.

    Committee members already have gathered a lot of up-to-date info, but it doesn’t hurt to have a backstop. And keep fighting for the public’s right to know.

    Sonny Albarado is projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. His journalism career of more than 40 years 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), a news editor and a city editor. 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 a past national president of SPJ and a current member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

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