Peeling Back the Secrets
Ironies abounded in Indianapolis last Friday, when the 2006 Freedom of Information Summit got underway just as Vice President Dick Cheney – perhaps the most secretive vice president in American history – was addressing a GOP fundraiser a couple of buildings away. Cheney’s motorcade had blocked downtown streets and the freeway to the airport, and those at the FOI conference would also argue he has blocked access to a lot more than roadways in the years he’s been a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But aside from a joke or two about the coincidence, the conference attendees – nearly 200 journalists, activists, public officials, and just plain citizens – spent the next two days sharpening their skills in fighting for the public’s right to know what the government is up to. What they were talking about here was not uncovering the kind of state secrets the CIA collects, but making sure that officials deliver the documents that are supposed to be public, under federal, state or local freedom of information laws.
“This is not a time for timidity,” noted opening speaker Charles Lewis, founder of the non-profit Center for Public Integrity, which has long been one of the leading independent centers of investigative reporting in Washington. This crowd knew that all too well.
The federal Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 and similar laws exist in every state. But laws on the books don’t always translate into actions on the ground, especially when curious citizens show up at government offices asking for documents like the salary or expense logs of the local school superintendent.
Suspecting that was the case, a group of seven newspapers in Indiana teamed up in 1998 to do a statewide audit of how well local governments were doing in meeting their public obligations. They sent a small army of reporters to government offices in all 92 Indiana counties, asking for five different documents that are supposed to be public. What they found was not reassuring. Many offices, especially in law enforcement, failed to comply with the state’s own laws. All seven newspapers splashed the results of the audit on the front page of all their papers on the same Sunday.
The reaction was quick and effective. The governor appointed a commission to address the problems. Both the governor and the legislature held hearings. A new office of Public Access Counselor was created and now assists citizens who feel they’ve been denied access to records they’re entitled to see.
In the process, a template was created for repeating this exercise elsewhere. Since that first effort, similar audits have now been done in 32 states, many of which now have state ombudsmen or public access counselors of their own.
What I found particularly interesting, from the government officials who were attending, was that most of the inquiries those offices get – typically about 75% of them – come not from the news media, but from regular citizens.
Ironically, virtually every state audit has found that the agencies with the lowest compliance rate for producing public documents were in law enforcement – sheriff’s offices and jails. School districts and universities also had poor compliance in many states.
Nowadays, there’s plenty of help you can find on the web if you’re having trouble yourself prying public information from the government, or if you’re interested in the freedom of information movement around the country.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition, which put together the conference with a host of local sponsors, is based at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Their website includes a list of local members around the country and information resources in all 50 states. If you’re interested in running an FOI audit locally, they’ll even send you a free CD-ROM “toolkit” to help you set it up.
The states with the most active and well-funded FOI groups are in Texas, Florida and California. Many other states also have groups, though as Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation explained, “Some of us are a one or two person show in a basement.”
You can check out the availability of a wide variety of public records in your state – and how it compares with others – by going to citizenaccess.org, the website of the University of Florida’s Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project.
And if you want to see what a group of motivated college students can accomplish, check out the Texas-based “Light of Day Project” that sent a small army of college students tracking down crime records on Texas campuses. This year’s project is examining local police departments’ use of force – particularly tasers – in restraining criminal suspects.
Of course, it’s impossible to come away from a conference like this without thinking at least once of David and Goliath. If you’re intent on gathering public records at city hall, the school district, or the sheriff’s office, no state troopers are likely to clear the freeway ahead of you. On the other hand, if you’re denied a document that’s supposed to be public, it’s nice to know there are people – sometimes within the government itself – who’ll do everything they can to help.