Why do we call it a “request”? Why not an “order”?

Mark Weiler, a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University, sent us an e-mail the other day asking why  public records requests are called “requests.” Why do we refer to “requesters”? That’s a great point!

After all, when we go to a library to pick up a book that we are entitled to, we wouldn’t “request” the book. We wouldn’t ask a librarian, “May I please check out this book?” and then await an answer. We talk about checking out books, or “taking” them from the library, because we all assume that our taxes paid for the books and they are public for anyone to check out. So if public records are paid for and are legally disclosable, why do we have to “request” them? Certainly, some records are not disclosable for necessary reasons (national security, privacy, etc.), but that does not change the nature of acquiring records. Calling them “requests” is polite, but it also implies the idea of citizen submission to the government, but isn’t our government accountable to the people? Aren’t the people in charge?

So what’s a better term? FOI order? FOI directive? Should we refer to “patrons” instead of “requesters”? I like the sound of, “the citizen submitted a records order to the school district for expenses related to the new high school construction,” better than, “the citizen submitted a records request to the school district asking for expenses related to the new high school construction.” Any  thoughts or suggestions on wording?

FOI Quote of the Day!

In Oklahoma, where the legislature has been considering a really bad bill aimed at closing all identifying information of state employees, came news that the leader of the Senate said he would vote against a bill to keep public employees’ birth dates confidential if the measure returns to the Senate.

The best line of the story is Sen. Coffee’s quote:

“Upon further review, I think I would have changed my vote,” Coffee said. “I think you have to have access to that information and the First Amendment matters, like all of the Constitution. We need to preciously guard that. Are there abuses? Sure. Does that mean you don’t protect the First Amendment and what it stands for? No, I don’t think so.”

Now THAT is music to my ears! Wow!

Investigate sexual assaults on your campus

The Investigative News Network released its first major project, on the lack of punishment by universities against rapists, based on an incredible amount of records gathering, interviews and surveys. They even explain how you can do the same reporting at your local university.

The year-long project, conducted by seven different state and regional investigative reporting groups, revealed a culture of indifference and lack of punishment for sexual assaults, sometimes leading to repeat offenders. The project also exposed a system shrouded in secrecy and under-reporting crime statistics to the public.

What I love about this project, other than the awesome reporting and writing, is a special Web page set up to help others do the same reporting. The Reporter’s Toolkit lays out the law, how to investigate the cases, and provides a long list of resources. Outstanding!

Also, this report shows, once again, that universities rarely report accurate crime statistics (see, for example, a project in 2004 that showed how universities in the Pacific Northwest under-reported crime stats, despite federal law (Clery Act) requiring they tell the public what is going on). It goes to show that you can’t trust everything in a public record – numbers are sometimes twisted to make agencies look better. That’s why it is important to triangulate – look at other places that might have similar records, interview people, and find out what’s really going on.

Nice ProPublica Piece on Obama Dashboard…

In which yours truly cusses in his quote. How embarrassing! Oh well, I got the point across.   – Charles

Should a Parent Have a Right to See the Tape?

Kid gets into fight in middle school right here in Columbia, Mo. Mom asks whether there is a surveillance camera. School says “yes, but you can’t watch it…” and a Sunshine scrap ensues. Why can’t she see it?

Idaho hunters want secret licenses

In the annals of secrecy masked as “privacy” comes this story, in which hunters in Idaho seek to keep hunting and fishing licenses under wraps. A license is a public act, people.

Request text messages, Twitter, Facebook discussions

State officials around the country are trying to figure out how to handle public officials’ discussions via Twitter, Facebook, texting and other electronic devices. If officials are discussing public business then those messages are public records.

Check with your government jurisdictions to find out whether they are recording Blackberry messages and other electronic communications. If they aren’t, then they should. A good starting point is to ask for e-mail messages of the major executives, such as the city manager or mayor. Then when you get to know the computer technicians and they start getting used to you, ask about other officials’ communications. Do they use a Blackberry or text on a cell phone? Ask for those communications (e.g., the incredible coverage by the Detroit Free Press based on text message records that sent the mayor to prison). Then move from there. Do they Twitter? Discuss issues on Facebook? Make sure that the public’s business is conducted in public.

FOI ethics: Weigh benefits and harm on airing 911 tapes

A good story today by The Associated Press highlighted the effort underway by some states to close 911 records because of a few media outlets airing distressed callers. I am quoted as saying that it’s important to keep the records open so we can make sure our public safety agencies are working correctly. One government person argues that people will be less reluctant to call 911 if the tapes are public. That’s just silly – as if a person in dire need is going to assess the public records issues before making a call.

However, this raises a very good point about FOI ethics. Just because we have access to records doesn’t mean we have to put them out there for everyone to see. We can choose some restraint, voluntarily, weighing the benefit with the harm. Airing the tape of a woman screaming and sobbing might be gripping for sweeps, but is it really necessary? Maybe, maybe not, depending on the situation. But we must think it through carefully and be able to explain to the average person the public benefit of airing the tape. With rights to accessing records comes responsibility, and if we don’t take that responsibility seriously we’ll lose those rights.

College journalists: Get into a doc state of mind in Phoenix

This week college journalists will converge on downtown Phoenix for the Associated Collegiate Press national conference, and we hope they won’t want to miss some sessions on accessing public records (check out the incredible program):

  • Mark Goodman, former director of the Student Press Law Center, will do a session on accessing public records, 1-3:45 p.m. Thursday.
  • Database reporting on campus. Steve Doig from Arizona State University will give a session on accessing data for investigative reporting on campus, 9-10:05 a.m. Friday.
  • The art of access. I will give a talk on access strategy and useful records for campus papers, 10:15-11:20 a.m. Friday.
  • Craig Harris from The Arizona Republic will give a session on how he broke a big story by using public records laws, 3:30-4:30 p.m. Friday.
  • When law and ethics collide. Student Press Law Center attorney Mike Hiestand will talk about circumstances for when it might not be ethical to publish something from a record, even if it is legally permissible.

52 hours to provide a list of county employees?

A requester in Maryland asked for a list of county employees with their salaries in an electronic format. Pretty simple. But the county responded saying it would charge $40 per hour for 52 hours of programming, or $2,000 (first two hours are free). That’s crazy! When this was posted on the FOI-listserv today many people offered suggestions for the reporter, including:

  • Write a story about why it takes so long for the agency to copy basic data.
  • Look at the FOI requests submitted to the agency (or a FOI log) for the past few years to see if someone else has asked for the same thing. The county might have given out the same information for free previously.
  • File a request for a breakdown of the specific calculations and documentations for that 52-hour estimate. If they actually had anything calculated it is likely unreasonable and inflated.