A few tips on how to fight the good fight for open records

Open records and open meetings laws are among some of the most powerful tools available in trying to figure out what is really going on with many public institutions. Many big stories come out of open record requests and document digging. SMy favorites include the Journal-Sentinel’s “Cashing in on Kids” series, which looked at the way some people were gaming the state’s childcare system, and a series the Sun-Sentinel did years ago on deaths associated with plastic surgery.

Student journalists are often doing some great work in this regard as well. The Kentucky Kernel at the University of Kentucky has been locked in a protracted legal battle regarding the release of information pertaining to sexual assault allegations against a professor. Students at Duquesne clashed with student government officials about the publication of budget information lawfully obtained in the course of a public meeting. (In the spirit of full disclosure, the paper I advise, the Advance-Titan, is currently engaged in a legal fight over the release of documents pertaining to a professor who was removed from his teaching duties in the middle of last semester. The rub here is that the university believes it SHOULD release the documents, but the professor has filed suit to prevent this from happening. A court ruled in the paper’s favor, but the professor has appealed.)

Open records requests are great tools because while people can deny things or decline to comment on issues, documents are pretty much the unvarnished reality in black and white (if you’ll pardon the pun). Here are a few recommendations for you if you are taking your first steps into this area or you are a pro at this and want some validation:

  • File frequently: Much like any other mechanism or muscle, open records efforts don’t work well if the system has atrophied. The more of these requests people see, the more likely they are to know how to address them properly. This doesn’t mean turn your record keepers’ office into a paper dump every day, but consider doing a couple requests a month to see what you can find and to get the offices you want to use used to how this works.
  • Follow up: States have various rules pertaining to how long they have to get back to you or to fulfill your requests. In some cases, they spell this out while in other cases it’s “as soon as reasonably possible,” which is akin to when your parents used to say “We’ll see” when you were 6 years old asked if you could get a pony or a rocket ship. As the deadline draws near, check back via phone or email with the record keeper to see where your request is.
  • Don’t back off: When people tell you “no,” that doesn’t mean you are done. In some cases, people will say no for no good reason. Again, the answer has to be rooted in law and completely explained. This can’t be like when you were in high school and you asked for something and your parents just said “NO!” and when you asked “Why?” they answered “Because I’M A PARENT! That’s WHY!” Maybe mom and dad could get away with that but public officials can’t. Make sure the law is clearly stated and that they aren’t trying to snow you. (One open records case we dug into found the university’s lawyer telling us that they didn’t have to produce the documents under some obscure Indiana state law. It turns out they basically were trying to assert that information they wanted to share with the entire campus, but not the newspaper, was an “internal memo” not meant for public consumption. The state arbiter eventually ruled in our favor, but it was because we pushed the issue and didn’t take the first “no” for an answer.)
  • Ask for help: Students often feel they get the shaft on this kind of stuff because the state, the university or whatever public institution has resources beyond their reach, including access to legal advice. If you can’t afford Ramen and Diet Coke at the same time, how the heck are you supposed to afford a lawyer? The answer is that the Student Press Law Center can offer you some assistance. They have experts on duty to give you free advice on how to proceed. They can also arrange to get you a lawyer in some cases to help you pursue your quest. (Again, disclosure, they’re helping our paper out in this case and I’ve chipped in to them on more than one occasion.) You can find the group’s website here. It’s full of all sorts of great information, including how to file a request, what states are doing what  in regard to the law and stories about students fighting the good fight for open access to stuff. It’s worth a read.

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