Reporters gain useful insights into government operations at the local, state and federal level by examining government records or attending government meetings. The working documents and proceedings of an agency can, for example, indicate how the school board will implement budget cuts, why the state highway commission abandoned plans to run a new highway along a particular route, or what a federal task force discovered about the mortality rate in a community near an abandoned toxic waste site.
Whether it involves probing police misconduct, scrutinizing how local governments spend taxpayer money, or gathering information on school bus drivers’ traffic records, open records and meetings laws are a powerful oversight tool for journalists and citizens.
All states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have enacted open records or “freedom of information” laws that guarantee access to government documents.
The laws are amended regularly and, in recent years, there has been an effort to address access to electronic records in many jurisdictions. For example, the federal Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 mandated that the federal government’s electronic records are public to the same extent as paper counterparts. Changes in agency regulations and court rules also are occurring because so many records are now maintained in electronic format.
The 2007 amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act established the Office of Government Information Services. OGIS was created to help resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and government agencies by providing free, non-binding dispute resolution services. The 2007 amendments also clarified the definition of “representative of the news media” to specifically include freelance journalists, alternative media and those who electronically disseminate news for purposes of determining fee reduction benefits.
Open meetings or “sunshine” statutes give the public the right to attend the meetings of commissions, councils, boards and other government bodies. Some states permit electronic meetings so long as public access to the meetings is assured.
Open records and meetings laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.1 Reporters should familiarize themselves with their local statutes and federal laws.
1. The Reporters Committee has compiled a comprehensive guide to open meetings and records laws in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, including analysis of the statutes and cases interpreting them. The Open Government Guide is available as a compendium of guides to all states or individually by state. It also is available at www.rcfp.org/ogg/indexs.php.