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This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Freedom of Information Committee Chair

David Cuillier
Director and Associate Professor
School of Journalism
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
Work: 520-626-9694
Bio (click to expand) David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he researches and teaches access to public records, and is co-author with Charles Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." He served as FOI chair 2007-11 before becoming a national officer and serving as SPJ president in 2013-14.

Before entering academia, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Pacific Northwest. He has testified before Congress on FOI issues twice and provides newsroom training in access on behalf of SPJ. His long-term goal is to see a unified coalition of journalism organizations fighting for press freedom and funded through an endowed FOI war chest.

Home > Freedom of Information > Sunshine Week > FOI curriculum and classroom ideas for instructors

Sunshine Week Logo
Your right to know  •  March 15-21, 2015

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 SPJ FOI Committee Chair David Cuillier for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Media Law & Policy Division. Cuillier is the teaching standards chair for that division. If you have more ideas, tell Cuillier and he’ll share them with others.

Sunshine Week 2014: Two new studies released

On the eve of Sunshine Week 2014, SPJ released the results from two surveys about journalists’ experience with obtaining public information. The studies were led by Dr. Carolyn S. Carlson — a communication professor from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information committee — and Megan Roy, Carlson’s graduate research assistant.

The surveys specifically document reporters’ perceptions about whether government press offices interfere with reporting.

The first survey was of political and general assignment reporters working at the state and local level. The vast majority of reporters who took this survey said the amount of control has been increasing over the past several years and they see it only getting worse over the next few years. They agreed the current level of media control by PIOs is an impediment to providing information to the public. Download and read the complete report [PDF, 468 KB] here.

For the second survey, SPJ joined with the Education Writers Association to focus on the nation's education reporters. Journalists indicated that public information officers often require pre-approval for interviews, decide whom reporters get to interview and often monitor interviews. Sometimes they will prohibit interviews altogether. Education writers overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that “the public was not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.” Download and read the complete report [PDF, 417 KB] here.

Transcripts of remarks from the National Press Club’s “When Press Offices Block the Press” event [PDF]
Introduction by Kathryn Foxhall
Carolyn Carlson
SPJ President David Cuillier
Emily Richmond, EWA Public Editor

Sunshine Week Web site
Chapter FOI program ideas
Campus FOI resources
FOI activities for newsrooms
Writing about FOI
Quotable expert sources
FOI studies and reports
Curriculum and classroom ideas for teachers
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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 public’s right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. In the past, this award has been given annually. This year, the Freedom of Information committee adapted the rules so that the Black Hole Award is given on an as-needed basis. To view past winners, visit the Black Hole Award web page.

Reporter’s 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.

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. Find a description of this award-winning idea here (see pp. 53-55).

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. See complete description here (see pp. 44-46).

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, and is available in the latest GIFT book that can be ordered online.

FOI Web multimedia and cartoons

Sometimes it’s nice to have some visual material to break up the lecture or enhance a syllabus. Here are some interesting online Flash presentations and videos regarding FOI, as well as places to get good editorial cartoons:

FOI Editorial cartoons, published during Sunshine Week 2007 and collected by ASNE
— Do you suffer from Congressional Data Frustration (CVF)? Try Sunlightalinazinosec! September 2007, Sunlight Foundation
Democracy in Jeopardy! 2007,
Are we Safer in the Dark? 2006,
(Classified) clip about (classified) 2007, The Onion
Save the e-mail records from deletion! 2007, Missouri Democratic Party

FOI News for discussion fodder

Sometimes it helps to raise current FOI issues during class to spur discussion. Here are some Web sites and blogs that post FOI news:

SPJ FOI blog
Coalition of Journalists for Open Government
NFOIC FOI Advocate
NFOIC FOI Advocate blog
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
News Media and the Law
Free Government Information
Associated Press FOI news
The FOIA blog (Scott Hodes)
State Sunshine
UK Freedom of Information
Open Secrets (UK)
Open and Shut (Australia)

Books and readings

Looking for books or readings on FOI? Below is a list of some that are out there. Also, check out an annotated bibliography compiled by AccessNorthwest at Washington State University, including a list of resources by access guru Michael Ravnitzky:

— Alterman, E. (2004). When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences. NY: Penguin.
— Bok, S. (1999). Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. NY: Pantheon.
— Bok, S. (1982). Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. NY: Pantheon.
— Brin, D. (1999). The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? Perseus.
— Chapman, R. A., & Hunt, M. (2006). Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
— Cross, H. (1953). The People’s Right to Know. NY: Columbia.
— Davis, C. N., & Splichal, S. L. (2000). Access Denied: Freedom of Information in the Information Age. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
— Demac, D. A. (1988). Liberty Denied: The Current Rise of Censorship. Rutgers University Press.
— Devolpi, A., et al. (1981). Born Secret: The H-Bomb, the Progressive Case and National Security. Pergamon Policy Studies on Business and Economics. NY: Pergamon.
— Franck & Weisband, (1986). Secrecy and Foreign Policy. NY: Oxford.
— Fung, A., Graham, M., & Weil, D. (2007). Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency. NY: Cambridge University Press.
— Gup, T. (2007). Nation of Secrets: The threat to democracy and the American way of life. NY: Doubleday.
— Halprin, M., & Hoffman, D. (1977). Freedom vs. National Security: Secrecy and Surveillance. Chelsea House.
— Hoffman, D. (1981). Governmental Secrecy and the Founding Fathers: A Study in Constitutional Controls. Contributions in Legal Studies, Westport: Greenwood Press.
— Hood, C., & Heald, D. (2006). Transparency: The Key to Better Governance? NY: Oxford University Press.
— Kimball, P. (1983). The File. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
— Lord, K. M. (2006). The Perils and Promise of Global Transparency: Why the Information Revolution May Not Lead to Security, Democracy, or Peace. Albany: State University of New York Press.
— Marchetti, V. (1974). CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. NY: Dell.
— McDermott, P. (2007). Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information. Lanham, MD: Bernan Press.
— Moynihan, D. P. (1999). Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press.
— Piotrowski, S. J. (2007). Governmental Transparency in the Path of Administrative Reform. State University of New York Press.
— Roberts, A. (2006). Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age. NY: Cambridge University Press.
— Shawcross, W. (1979). Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. NY: Simon and Schuster.
— Snepp, F. (1977). Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam. NY: Random House.
— Snepp, F. (2001). Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle over Free Speech. NY: Random House.
— Florini, A. (2007). The Right to Know: Transparency for an Open World. NY: Columbia University Press.
— Stone, G. R. (2007). Top Secret: When our Government Keeps us in the Dark. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
— Stone, G. R. (2007). War and Liberty: An American Dilemma, 1790 to the Present. NY: Norton.
— Stone, G. R. (2004). Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime. NY: Norton.
— Ungar, S. J. (1972). The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers. NY: E.P. Dutton.
— Wiener, J. (1999). Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. Berkeley: University of California Press.
— Wiggins, J. R. (1964). Freedom or Secrecy. NY: Oxford.

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

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