The Art of Access: Strategies to get the public records you need


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Chip Stewart of the TCU Schieffer School of Journalism shares some practical tips on how to get access to public records.

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The Art of Access: Strategies to get the public records you need

  1. 1. The art of access:strategies to Get the records you need<br />Texas Center for Community Journalism <br />Workshop, Aug. 4, 2011<br />
  2. 2. The guidebook<br />The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records<br />By David Cuillier (current SPJ FOI chair) and Charles N. Davis (former director of National Freedom of Information Coalition)<br />CQ Press 2010, $23.95<br />
  3. 3. Step 1: Get in the FOI habit<br />Developing “a document state of mind”<br />Remember who the government works for and why we have FOI laws<br />You are doing your job and the public’s business<br />Make an “FOI First!” sign & designate a day of the week to be your FOI day<br />Find an FOI Friend<br />TCCJ, FOIFT, local SPJ chapter<br />Network, brainstorm, find ideas that have worked elsewhere <br />Make a Twitter list: @MediaLawProf, @TxFOIFT, @DavisCN, @RCFP, @TCCJ @JoelCampbell<br />
  4. 4. Step 2: become an expert<br />You’re here – that’s a great start!<br />Keep a copy of the law handy<br />Get the Attorney General handbooks (which are free) and read them<br />Expect the exceptions (real or made up) that records custodians will throw at you<br />Always ask how that exception applies, why you can’t have that record today, what parts don’t need to be redacted<br />If you’re confident in the law, your response will be accurate (and they may not know what to do)<br />
  5. 5. Step 3: learn about records<br />How are documents kept? Who keeps them? Where and how?<br />Identify your records custodians, introduce yourself, get to know them<br />Find out where documents are created and where they go to die<br />Ask for a list of records and documents that agency/body keeps<br />Ask for an FOI log – who is filing requests and what are they asking for?<br />Find everything you can online<br />
  6. 6. STEP 4: make good requests<br />Do your homework<br />know who keeps what records, find out what the record is called, be specific<br />Ask verbally first<br />Be polite, show respect, build relationships, understand that it is more work for them<br />Write a good, specific letter<br />Choose a tone – honey or vinegar?<br />Argue interests rather than positions<br />“Getting to Yes” – principled negotiation<br />Understand motivations of record-holders<br />
  7. 7. STEP 5: overcoming denials<br />Common denials<br />No response <br />Your request is overly broad<br />That record doesn’t exist<br />We’ll get back to you<br />Part is covered by exemption, so you can’t have any of it<br />You can have it…for $105,000<br />Make the denial the story<br />Seek administrative options (appeal, AG)<br />Get legal help & file a lawsuit<br />