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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
FOI Toolbox

Utah's black hole: Fight bad FOI legislation

By Joel Campbell

Tuesday, March 1, 2011, is one of those dates that will live in infamy for Utah journalists and citizens.

Late in the afternoon, lawmakers unveiled a 1,800-line bill that was intended to gut key provisions of Utah’s records law, the Government Records Access and Management Act (known as GRAMA). Among other things, it would have exempted text messages from the records law and made it more difficult to make and pay for record requests.

Within 72 hours, both the House and Senate had passed the bill with only perfunctory hearings. The strategy was intentional. The leadership of the GOP’s legislative supermajority had orchestrated a quick passage believing that a “weak media” would not be able to counter such an effort. They admitted later that they thought it would be a 72-hour news story and die.

Lawmakers did not count on a public uprising.

After citizen outcry and an initiative drive to dump the law, lawmakers reconvened and repealed the law March 25. Here are the lessons Utah’s SPJ chapter, along with other groups and everyday citizens, learned from the experience and what you can do in your state if your legislature decides to do the same thing:

SOUND THE ALARM

Within hours of the bill’s unveiling, the Utah Media Coalition released a legislative analysis, which was then widely distributed to news organizations and through social media. The analysis refuted arguments of lawmakers and their attorneys. Heavy coverage in Utah news media continued during the 25 days between the bill’s introduction and repeal.

BUILD A COALITION

Through previous FOI fights, the Utah Headliners Chapter of SPJ and the Utah Press Association had formed a strong Utah Media Coalition. The Salt Lake Tribune took a leading role in mobilizing the coalition in early March. In this fight, that coalition eventually expanded to include good government groups and people of all political stripes.

USE SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media including blogs, Twitter and Facebook became critical in getting people to rallies, including one on the last night of the legislative session when hundreds swarmed the Capitol. Social media also drew diverse groups together to launch an initiative petition effort to repeal the law. Facebook posts and tweets also quickly spread news reports and editorials to people across the state.

CALL OUT THE BIG ARTILLERY

In the Utah case, the big artillery was rare front-page editorials in the state’s newspapers and full-page ads explaining how the bill threatened the public’s right to know. The Salt Lake Tribune produced the ads and then made them available to any weekly or daily newspaper. Larger daily newspapers also made reports about the controversy available to smaller papers.

“(Enlisting the help of the large media) shined a bright spotlight,” said Donald W. Meyers, SPJ Region 9 director and a Salt Lake Tribune reporter. “The most important lesson, in my humble opinion, was showing the public that this affects them and is not a newspaper law. The public got this very quickly. People saw that GRAMA was their law and the Legislature was keeping them in the dark.”

CALL IN THE EXPERTS

Utah SPJ and the Utah Media Coalition were quick to turn to SPJ’s national FOI Committee. Committee Chairman David Cuillier and committee member Charles Davis analyzed the bill and found it would have put Utah’s records law in the same class as former Soviet republics. Those statements help bring needed perspective to the debate. In an ironic coincidence, lawmakers introduced the bill just as the FOI Committee was voting on its first-ever national Black Hole Award. The Utah Legislature and governor were an easy choice. Cuillier flew from Arizona to Utah to lay a ceremonial black wreath on the state Capitol steps. The symbolic award sent a strong message to Utah officials and across the nation. The Legislature repealed the bill, HB477, 10 days later.

The fight continues, though, as a legislative working group has been convened to review and explore other possible updates to GRAMA.

Joel Campbell is a member of the SPJ FOI Committee and is an associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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