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.

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