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Your right to know  •  March 10-16, 2024

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.

Record requests

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.

Secret justice

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 weren’t acting with all the facts they realize that information and open deliberation are needed for a fair and just society.

Dream House

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 person’s 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

Click here to contact the Project Sunshine Chair in your state.

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