When submitting a public records request letter, either through your state public records law or the federal Freedom of Information Act, it pays to think tone.
How you write your letter can affect whether a public official responds, regardless of the law.
Do you write, “Shucks, I know you’re busy and all, but could you please provide me this information?” Or do you cite statutory language, remind them of legal penalties, and threaten to sue for noncompliance? Which works best?
When I ask this question in newsroom training sessions, the majority of people say nice letters will get a better response. That’s what I thought, too.
Until I conducted two experiments.
In the first study, a student journalist allowed me to work with him on his project. He wanted to access use-of-force incident reports from all the police agencies in Arizona, about 106 of them. So I mailed out the request letters for him in late 2007, randomly assigning half the agencies to a friendly letter and half a legalistic, threatening letter from the Student Press Law Center’s Web site. The student journalist, who dealt with the agencies and recorded their responses, did not know who got what letter.
After a month, I analyzed the responses and found that the threatening letter resulted in about two-thirds of agencies responding, while the friendly letter managed to get only half responding. The threatening letter resulted in three times the rate of agencies actually providing the records (14 percent compared to 4 percent). On average, those who got the threatening letter responded a little faster (nine days instead of 10 days) and charged a little less for copies ($3.27 per report instead of $3.50).
That surprised me, and I didn’t believe the results. Must be a fluke. So I conducted another experiment in early 2008.
In the second experiment, I worked with another student journalist to request superintendent contracts from all 208 school districts in the state. In this study, a third of the districts were randomly assigned the friendly letter, a third got the threatening letter, and a third got a neutral letter (the letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site).
As in the first study, the friendly letter resulted in about half of districts responding, as did the neutral letter. The threatening letter resulted in three-quarters responding, even more than in the police study. The threatening letter also resulted in more agencies producing the records (28 percent compared to 19 percent for the neutral letter and 24 percent for the friendly letter), lower copy fees ($2.32 compared to $2.36 for the neutral letter and $5.95 for the friendly letter) and fewer days (five instead of seven for the other two letters).
Authoritative requests work. But why? Looking at the responses more closely, I noticed that most of the responses to the threatening letters, unlike the friendly or neutral letters, came from agency attorneys or the head officials. It appears clerks would get the requests in the mail, see the legal threats and forward them up the chain. But if agencies received the friendly letters, they were more likely to blow them off.
Psychologists say this “hard tactic” of the threatening letter can be the most effective at getting what you want; however, the drawback is it usually works just once. Going back to the same clerk and asking for something might yield a less-than-enthusiastic response. So it’s good to know that the club can work, but if it were me I wouldn’t use it in every situation — perhaps after being blown off by a polite verbal request.
It’s important to note that most of the agencies didn’t actually provide the records, even with the threatening letter, so letters aren’t good enough to get what we are legally entitled to. It’s just one part of the public records request process, and results may vary depending on the type of agency.
More research is needed, but these studies suggest that ultimately, the law is a powerful force, and a reminder of the law in request letters can’t hurt.
Request letter tips
1. Ask verbally first.
2. If you’re getting the run-around, submit a records request letter to start the clock ticking.
3. Use online records request generators: www.rcfp.org and www.splc.org.
4. When writing the letter, be specific.
5. Address the letter to the right person, and follow up.
6. Set a limit on copy fees.