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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
FOI Toolbox

Call in the special forces in FOI battles

By David Cuillier

When a public agency denies you a public record, don’t get mad; get busy. And get help. Organizations like SPJ can help you get information the public needs to adequately self-govern:

SUNSHINE NETWORK

SPJ's Sunshine Network provides resources and experts for every state. These people know your state law best and might even partner in litigation. Many state press associations or open government coalitions provide free FOI hotlines. Also, many states have public record ombudsman offices, as does the federal government.

APPEAL LETTERS

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides in its Open Government Guidesample appeal letters for FOIA, as well as tips on appealing. They also have a neat tool for submitting and tracking your requests, called iFOIA.

SPJ WATCHDOG

Public pressure is often the best way of getting an agency to cut records loose, and it’s less expensive and time intensive than litigation. Contact me (spjdave@yahoo.com) or any of our FOI Committee members, and perhaps SPJ will issue a statement from a local chapter, the national president or both. We might even get dozens of other groups to sign on, as SPJ did over the summer in its letter to President Barack Obama decrying excessive information control.

BLACK HOLE AWARD

Even better than statements is raising awareness through an SPJ Black Hole Award, personally delivered to the offending agency by the SPJ president, FOI Committee chair or other representative. We presented the “black wreath of secrecy” to the Utah Legislature in 2011, thanks to former FOI Committee Chair Linda Petersen, and I believe it helped lead to change when the governor and legislature wanted to gut the state’s open records law.

FREE STUDENT AID

If you are a high school or college journalist, you can get free legal help from the Student Press Law Center>. The director, Frank LoMonte, is an attorney, and one of the most passionate FOI warriors in the nation.

FREE HELP FOR PROS

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a legal defense hotline free to professional journalists: 800-336-4243. Also, the committee just hired its first full-time litigator, Katie Townsend, to lead the legal effort. The National Freedom of Information Coalition wields a Knight FOI Fund to help cover court costs.

LEGAL DEFENSE FUND

In 1972, SPJ created the Legal Defense Fund to help journalists fight for press freedom, including access to government information. Most grants for legal assistance are for $5,000 or less, but the SPJ board of directors can provide larger sums, particularly if the litigation is likely to improve press freedom nationwide. Starting this fall, SPJ will be raising money for an endowed LDF fund that will bolster advocacy for generations to come. I like to call it the Legal Offense Fund.

Yes, you are not alone. It’s amazing how many incredible FOI warriors are willing to jump in and help, and there are many others beyond this list. Use them. Thank them. Then pay it forward for FOI.

David Cuillier, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee chairman and immediate past president, is associate professor and director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, a former newspaper reporter and editor from the Pacific Northwest, and co-author with Charles N. Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records."

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