FOI curriculum and classroom ideas for instructors
Here are just some ideas for teaching FOI in the college or high school classroom. This information was first provided by former SPJ FOI Committee Chair David Cuillier for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Media Law & Policy Division.
– Sunshine Week Toolkit [sunshineweek.org]
– Sunshine Week website [sunshineweek.org]
– Chapter FOI program ideas
– Campus FOI resources
– FOI activities for newsrooms
– Writing about FOI
– Curriculum and classroom ideas for teachers
– FOI resources
SPJ and the Government Accountability Project have teamed up with several other whistleblowing and media organizations to inform journalists on how they can safely work with whistleblowers, and have created a comprehensive case for why those brave workers who risk everything should be praised and better protected.
SPJ's Black Hole Award: The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award in order to highlight the most heinous violations of the publics right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. To learn more, visit the Black Hole Award web page.
Reporters Guide to FERPA: Navigating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act: Ever have a tough time getting public records from schools or universities? We feel your pain and are here to help you. The federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act has been twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret. Take back your right to information with this guide, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Require students to request one public record. Have them research the law, submit a records request letter, follow it through, then summarize what they found and what they encountered. This is a simple assignment that can be incorporated easily into reporting or law courses.
Organized FOI audits
Some professors assign organized class audits of specific agencies within the community or statewide. For example, a 2004 FOI class co-taught by Susan Ross and David Cuillier at Washington State University requested dozens of records from 20 universities in five Northwest states to find widespread noncompliance of the Clery Act. Charles Davis, an access guru from the University of Missouri-Columbia and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, developed an audit toolkit that can be applied by professionals and classes. Also, see a good description of implementing an audit in the classroom by Terry Wimmer, now of the University of Arizona, who presented a FOI audit as an AEJMC Great Idea for Teaching in 2002 (see pp. 86-88). Research indicates that audits can increase student support for FOI (see Simon, J. & Sapp, D. A. (2006). Learning inside and outside the classroom: Civic journalism and the Freedom of Information Act, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 61(2)).
I seek dead people
Carol S. Lomicky of the University of Nebraska-Kearney won the 2002 Great Ideas for Teaching grand prize award at AEJMC for a FOI exercise that utilized dead people. She assigns students to go to a cemetery and find a grave. Then, using documents, students research that person. Students tap into records involving census, probate, birth, marriage, military and others.
This is a Great Idea for Teaching presented at AEJMC in 2002 by Kenneth C. Killebrew of University of South Florida. In this exercise, the class is divided into groups. One student is put into detention and each group is given different information about the facts of the case and asked to deliberate and find innocence or guilt. Only one group is given all the facts. The students can vote in secret on whether to charge the student. When all the groups reveal their decisions and realize they werent acting with all the facts they realize that information and open deliberation are needed for a fair and just society.
This Great Idea for Teaching grand prize winner presented in 2006 by David Cuillier of the University of Arizona takes the traditional audit and adds a practical twist that makes FOI relevant to students future personal lives: buying a house. They are assigned a real house for sale in the community and then told to go out and find everything they can about the house and neighborhood through public records. They tap into property records, crime reports, zoning maps, airport noise maps, environmental records, and other documents. Pretest-posttest surveying found this exercise increased support for access even more than students who conducted a traditional audit. Relevancy helps build motivation and support for FOI. See description here.
Bleachers of fury: Interactive slideshow
For this exercise, after going through FOI law in lecture and readings, work through the issues in an interactive PowerPoint slideshow. Create a story line of mayhem at a campus football game, using photos with permission from the campus paper, athletic department or local newspaper. A player is injured and taken to the hospital are you entitled to know who it is and extent of injuries? A protester is arrested outside the stadium are you entitled to know the persons name and get an incident report? Half the crowd gets sick from the nacho cheese where do you find the vendor and recent health inspections? The bleachers collapse are you entitled to know who built them? Incorporate issues that students discuss in groups and then as a class in deciding whether information should be public. This exercise was a Great Idea for Teaching in 2007, presented by David Cuillier.
FOI News for discussion fodder
Sometimes it helps to raise current FOI issues during class to spur discussion. Here are some websites and blogs that post FOI news:
Quill: Stories About FOI
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
News Media and the Law
Free Government Information
The FOIA blog (Scott Hodes)
UK Freedom of Information