Media organizations often find that officials are not willing to release public records
From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 34.
By Kristin Gunderson
Clad in blue jeans, flannel shirt and ball cap, John Trumbo walked into the Franklin County, Wash., sheriff’s office with his 4-year-old daughter in the hope of getting records about registered sex offenders.
But other than leaving with his daughter, Trumbo left the sheriff’s office empty-handed. The same thing happened at the Pasco Police Department.
As a reporter for the Tri-City Herald, Trumbo typically obtains public records with ease. But when disguised as an average citizen, the task proved much more challenging. He said one of the officers he came into contact with used delay tactics and intimidation to prevent him from seeing the records.
“He became pointed and confrontational,” Trumbo said. “He was very pushy and went way beyond what the law permits.”
Trumbo’s experience is not unusual. Audits completed by newspapers, news organizations and some government agencies in 27 states have shown that, all too often, citizens are denied access to open records.
Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the audits have been revealing, showing a lack of compliance and knowledge among particular agencies and government officials about their obligations under FOI laws.
“In every case, they’ve helped to kind of demystify the Freedom of Information Act,” Landon said.
The most recent audits have been conducted in Mississippi, Connecticut, Arizona, West Virginia and Washington. According to those sponsoring the audits, the purpose was not to prove that reporters have difficulty obtaining information, but that it can be especially difficult for the average citizen to access records.
“We didn’t want this to be an effort by news organizations to whine about how we can’t get the information we want,” said Dale Leach, Seattle bureau chief for the Associated Press.
In some instances, volunteers instead of reporters audited agencies. Otherwise, reporters, like Trumbo, disguised themselves and audited agencies other than those they usually cover. Reporters took these measures in order to retain their anonymity and demonstrate an ordinary citizen’s experience accessing records.
“Public agencies will treat you differently when you’re a reporter,” Trumbo said. “Reporters shouldn’t have private access to information any more than the average citizen has access to information.”
He said the media should not receive special treatment because reporters become indebted to sources, and fair reporting diminishes. “The media become manipulated by those that are trying to spin the facts,” he said.
But just as Trumbo was treated differently acting as a citizen, so were many other auditors.
In Washington, 39 counties were surveyed by 25 newspapers. The newspapers discovered that lists of sex offenders are hard to come by in different parts of the state. For example,16 percent of requests regarding information on sex offenders were denied.
In Mississippi, nearly 14 percent of all 36 agencies surveyed refused outright to release public records to volunteers, while 85 percent of the 68 agencies surveyed in Connecticut refused. In West Virginia, 40 percent of the agencies surveyed denied auditors access.
Arizona boasted a nearly 100 percent compliance rate among schools and planning and zoning organizations, but 43 percent of the 63 law enforcement agencies surveyed denied access.
“It’s really shocking that those that are supposed to be enforcing our laws are the ones breaking the open government rules,” Landon said.
While access rates varied in different states and among different agencies, those involved with the audits came to one conclusion: Those in charge of releasing open records to the public need to be more educated and more aware of their rights and the rights of the public when it comes to viewing public documents.
“There are far too many people on the front line not knowledgeable about what their obligations are under the FOI,” said Tom Hennick, a public education officer at the Connecticut Freedom of Information Center.
Leach agreed: “A lot of public servants are not very well informed about the law and their responsibilities under the law. There is certainly ambiguity about the release of information about crimes.”
Some involved with the audits said ambiguity and the failure to release documents stem from an attitude that agencies own the documents.
“There is a certain proprietary attitude that blurs the distinction between being responsible for maintaining these records and controlling them,” Leach said.
“The mind set has become ‘These are my records, my agency’s records’ as opposed to public records,” Hennick said. “There is skepticism on part of the agencies that people requesting the information are up to no good.”
But there are “good purposes” for requesting public records, according to Lynn Evans, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information. Citizens can check out crimes occurring in their neighborhoods, residences of registered sex offenders and health ratings of local restaurants.
In order to relieve confusion and make public servants more aware, the states have started or are attempting to start education initiatives for government employees.
Leach said there have been moves to educate employees in Washington. Evans said that they are still working hard to get education efforts going in Mississippi. She said that part of the education effort in Mississippi will involve making employees aware of the “good purposes” for releasing records.
Connecticut has started a training program for employees in charge of public records. It helps employees recognize what rights they have to withhold documents; it coaches the proper procedure for releasing the documents; and it stresses a positive attitude toward those requesting documents.
“The more people know what their obligations are, what their rights are, on both sides of the fence, the better off we’ll be,” Hennick said.