One illegal public record denial, shame on them.
Two illegal denials, shame on me.
When a public agency denies a public records request, and suing isn’t an option, don’t give up and enable future denials. Put a stop to it with peer pressure.
Here are five ways to use the power of shame to keep governments accountable:
If a police chief refuses to provide documents regarding a public-safety issue, then ask city council members, county commissioners, school board members and other police chiefs whether they think the public should have the information.
After all, officials aren’t saying “no” to you; they are saying “no” to your entire community. Make secrecy the issue, and you’ve flipped the fight on its head. No longer is it you trying to prove why you should have the record; now it’s why the agency is hiding something.
Once public officials start talking among themselves through e-mail, over coffee at the local cafe and on the golf course, the political murmuring might convince the police chief to cough it up.
Cite government guides
City, county and school associations often provide their members guides to public records and open meetings. Many of these are posted online and provide frequently asked questions answered by government attorneys. The National League of Cities, for example, provides a variety of city record and meeting policies online and links to associations throughout the country (http://www.nlc.org).
Find in the guide where the government association says the record or meeting is required to be open, and then provide that page or Web site to your reluctant official.
Enlist an ombudsman
About half the states now have some form of government access mediator, such as an ombudsman or assistant attorney general. Ask that person to educate your officials.
To find out if you have an ombudsman in your state, check out a white paper published this year about FOI mediation by Harry Hammitt of Access Reports: www.nfoic.org/resources/reports/hammitt_me
Survey local practices
If one agency refuses to provide documents that other agencies in your community or state provide, then do a quick comparison survey.
For example, at one newspaper where I worked, a local court clerk charged residents and journalists $1 per page for photocopies but didn’t charge attorneys. We checked each of the state’s 38 counties to find that this policy was unheard of, and then published a story, quoting people affected by the high fees and the officials’ peers from around the state. Within a few weeks, the charges dropped to 25 cents a page, and the fee was applied to everyone.
To add oomph, coordinate with other media, a freedom of information coalition in your state (www.nfoic.org/membership/members.html) or your state SPJ sunshine chairman (www.spj.org/sunshine-chairs.asp).
Compare state laws
If the denial is based on interpretation of a vague state public records or open meeting law, compile a quick summary of how other states handle the issue. This is easy to do thanks to the Citizen Access Project (www.citizenaccess.org) and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (www.rcfp.org/ogg/index.php).
Both sites allow you, in different ways, to compare parts of state record or meeting laws across states. These Web sites came in handy when I was interested in finding out how many states kept secret 911 tapes and e-mail (about a half dozen).
Fortunately for journalists, most government officials care about their communities and do the right thing. Some are saints. But unfortunately, some are fallen angels who break the law and should face not only reporters, but their peers.
As Walter Lippmann, former journalist and presidential adviser to Woodrow Wilson, once said, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.”