Just imagine that a state legislator has introduced a bill that would make most e-mail received by public officials off limits to the public in your state.
If you are the local SPJ chapter’s sunshine chair, you need answers – and you need them fast – to start rallying local FOI advocates against the bill. If you’re a news reporter covering the issue, you need to add context to a story about the brewing fight.
Among good questions from both advocates and reporters to ask: How does the proposed law square with other states’ statutes? What do other state laws that specifically make e-mail a public record look like? What do statutes that promote access say?
Answers are only a few mouse clicks away at www.citizenaccess.org. In an ever-growing database of statutes and legal opinions, the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project Web site allows journalists, citizens and public officials to better understand public access to local government information in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Based at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communication, the project’s researchers have dissected hundreds of state FOI statutes, rated them and then placed summaries of them in an indexed database. In the end, the project will produce a detailed picture of the nation’s open records and meetings acts.
Ralph L. Lowenstein, the college’s dean emeritus, likens the project to the mapping of the human genome.
“The implications for press freedom are similar to the implications of the human genome project and almost as intricate. That project lists, or will when completed, all the open meetings and records laws in every state and how they rank,” Lowenstein told the Gainesville Sun. “It’s a tremendous boon for reporters … and for helping them make their states freer in terms of press freedom.”
Most of the funding for the project came from Orlando media executive Marion Brechner, who established an endowment with a gift of $600,000. The project also received matching money from the State of Florida and from the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
One of the strengths of the Web site is its ranking system, which allows complex comparisons. If the state ranks low in access, it is easier for openness advocates to argue for improvement. It’s also easy to call up statutory language from states that rank high for access and ask lawmakers to model the best laws.
The rankings are also easy to understand. The project’s advisory board of media law experts use a “sunshine scale,” rating from “sunny” to “partly cloudy” to “dark.” The board members rate each state law provision on a scale of seven to one that corresponds to a weather term. A seven, or “sunny,” represents a state law that allows the most access to government information; a one, or “dark,” represents a state law with the least access. The Web site displays icons with the weather-term ratings. By placing their cursor on the icons, viewers can also see the precise rating.
Take, for example, the project’s information about the reaction of state legislators to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Project researchers found state lawmakers have enacted dozens of changes since the terrorist attacks that limit access to government-held information about building plans, evacuation procedures, medical supplies and a number of other issues related to security.
While cataloging the terrorism-related laws, Citizen Access Project researchers averaged eight subcategories to get an overall ranking for information related to security, safety and terrorism. Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and the District of Columbia received “nearly dark” ratings because they limit access to many records assessing preparedness and security risks.
A category such as security-related records can be viewed in several ways. Users can select to view a law category across all states or one state across available law categories. As viewers enter the site, they are asked to navigate a series of dialog boxes, including the selection of “One category across all states” or “One state across available categories.” After selecting one of these categories, viewers can choose from a long list of available categories. As with the security record rankings, some categories provide an overall rating based on related subcategories.
Along with ratings for state laws, the project also includes almost all state constitutional provisions and, so far, only a few court decisions. After visitors click into the site, they can also see which laws have been reviewed for each category by selecting the applicable legal authority either statute, constitution, or most recent statement of law. These options are shown as hypertext links at the top of the “One category across all states” or “One state across available categories” page views.
From the site’s home page, users can also click to a short list of newsworthy topics. These include sex offender records, security records and, soon, election record laws.
“In some categories, we rate the statutes and constitutions before we have had a chance to rate related court cases,” said Bill Chamberlin, director of the project. “A ëmost recent statement of law’ score doesn’t appear until we have reviewed all aspects of the state laws. The project doesn’t use a court decision for a ëmost recent statement of law’ unless the court’s jurisdiction covers the entire state.”
While the site is a catalog of law, researchers do not offer legal advice for a particular problem someone may be having obtaining access to state government information. However, the site offers a large online library of resources, including contacts and online resources in states for further legal assistance. Listings include state records audits, general legal resources (including Web sites), books and law review articles, and organizations that can provide assistance, including SPJ’s sunshine chair network. The full text of state laws are also available in the site.
Research categories available on the Web site are:
• Definitions of a record
• Procedures involved in requesting a record, including laws for inspecting and copying records
• Computer records, including geographic information systems, commonly know as GIS
• The subject matter of records
• The public and private entities covered under the state’s records laws, including governors, legislatures and schools
• Constitutional provisions for access to records, including Florida’s exceptional access-oriented language
• Segregation of confidential records from non-confidential records
• Laws governing posting sex offender information on the Internet
• Laws providing for appeals, remedies and punishment in records cases will be added soon
• Constitutional provisions for open meetings
Joel Campbell is assistant communications professor at Brigham Young University and SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee co-chair.