Back in January, we began rolling out the Citizen Media Law Project's Legal Guide. So far, we've published major sections of the guide covering Forming a Business and Getting Online, Dealing with Online Legal Risks, and Newsgathering and Privacy. This week we published the section on Access to Government Information, which highlights the extensive amount of information available through government sources and explains how both traditional and non-traditional journalists can use various public access laws to gather and make effective use of this information.
To whet your appetite, I've pasted the overview to this new section below:
This section of the legal guide outlines the wide-array of information available to you from government sources. These sources range from your local city council all the way up to the largest agencies in the federal government. In fact, you might be quite surprised at how much information is available to you. And the best part is that you generally don't need to hire a lawyer or file any complicated forms -- you can access most of this information simply by showing up or filing a relatively simple request. Moreover, you don't need to be a professional journalist to share what you find with others who are interested in these issues; with nothing more than an Internet connection, you can make the information available to anyone in the world. For an impressive example of how some people are using the power of new information technologies in conjunction with government information, check out Adrian Holovaty's Chicagocrime.org, a browsable database of crimes reported in Chicago.
Regardless of what you publish online, it is likely that at least one (if not many) of the information sources we discuss in this section will be valuable to you. For example, you might want to find out whether the drinking water coming out of your faucet contains pollutants (information that is likely contained in documents held by the Environmental Protection Agency or one of its state counterparts). Perhaps you'd like to know more about how your local school board makes decisions (information that you can get by attending school board meetings). Or perhaps you are concerned that a real estate developer may have been sued for fraud (information that is available by visiting the courthouse in person or accessing the court's electronic docketing system).
Information from these government sources will be especially useful to you if you want to take your publishing activities beyond merely commenting on material posted by others. These sources can help you move into original reporting and enable you to comment in an informed fashion on local and national debates. You might even do a periodic post or column on subjects of particular interest to your website or blog. For example, the Gotham Gazette, an independent news site that covers "New York City News and Policy," has an entire section focusing on city government, which is largely based on meetings of the New York City Council.
We should point out, however, that the information you gather from these government sources doesn't have to be limited to the actions of the government itself. Government bodies collect extensive information on individuals, corporations, and other organizations. Much of this information is available to the public. You just have to know where to look.
The first thing you will need to consider is which government entity likely has the information you are seeking. Public access to government information extends to a broad range of government sources, including federal and state agencies, Congress and state legislatures, government boards and committees, and the courts. In fact, it might be the case that the information you are interested in is located in more than one place. A little advanced research on your part can go a long way when dealing with the government. Because different laws apply to different government entities, you will want to review each section of this guide that might apply to your situation. If you are not sure whether the information you seek is associated with a federal, state, or local government body, refer to the page on Federal, State, and Local Government Bodies for some helpful information.
It is also worth bearing in mind that laws granting access to government information are only one of many important fact-finding tools in your information gathering toolbox. These laws can be very powerful, but their scope is limited to records and information available through government sources. For a broad overview of how you can investigate a full range of actors, including government, individuals, and corporations, see the Newsgathering section of this guide and check out the Center for Investigative Reporting's entertaining and inspirational guide, Raising Hell: A Citizens Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation.
Information Held by the Federal Government
The federal government is a sprawling and far reaching entity headquartered in Washington, D.C., but with agencies and offices in almost every part of the country. A number of important laws govern your access to information associated with the federal government.
The most well known of these laws is the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), which provides access to the public records of most departments, agencies, and offices of the federal government. But several lesser known laws are also important, including the Government in the Sunshine Act which gives you the right to attend the meetings of many federal agencies, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which allows you to attend the meetings of boards and committees that advise agencies of the federal government, and the Presidential Records Act, which sets out the procedures you must follow to request records from the president and his or her close advisers.
If you are seeking records held by a federal government agency, you should review the section on Access to Records from the Federal Government which describes FOIA and provides some practical advice on how to use the law to acquire government records. Keep in mind, however, that FOIA does not cover the President himself/herself, Congress, or the federal judiciary. For information on accessing information from these sources, see the Access to Presidential Records, Access to Congress, and Access to Courts and Court Records sections of this guide, respectively.
The federal government often acts through boards, committees, and other government "bodies." Examples include the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Housing Finance Board. A common feature of these agencies, boards, commissions, and other government bodies is that they meet as groups to deliberate or take action on public business. If you wish to attend these meetings, you will need to become familiar with a category of laws called open meetings laws. These important laws give anyone, including members of the traditional and non-traditional press, the ability to attend the meetings of many federal government bodies and to receive reasonable notice of those meetings. In many instances, they also entitle you to obtain copies of minutes, transcripts, or recordings at low cost. See the section on Access to Government Meetings for more information and practical advice.
There are basically two types of federal government meetings you may wish to attend and each is governed by a different set of legal requirements. Federal agency meetings are governed by the Government in the Sunshine Act which gives you the right to attend the meetings of many federal agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. Federal advisory committee meetings, which are a strange hybrid type of meeting involving outside advisers tasked with giving advice to the federal government, are governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
Information Held by State and Local Governments
Just as with the federal government, a number of important laws govern your ability to access information associated with state and local governments.
Every state has some version of a "Freedom of Information" (FOI) law — sometimes called a "sunshine law" — that governs the public’s right to access state government records. These FOI laws help the public keep track of its government’s actions, from the expenditures of school boards to the governor's decision to pardon prison inmates. For example, in 2003, a parent of a student in Texas, Dianna Pharr, spurred by the financial crisis in her local school district, began filing requests under the Texas Public Information Act to investigate the district's spending and operations. She and other parent volunteers established an online repository for the documents and made them available on a local community website, Keep Eanes Informed. Pharr's efforts received coverage in the local press, and have enabled her community to make informed decisions when dealing with school board proposals.
If the information you are seeking is contained in records held by your state or local government, you will need to review the section on Access to Records from State Governments in order to understand how to make a request under the relevant state law. For example, the California Public Records Act and the New York Freedom of Information Law govern access to records in California and New York, respectively. In many states, local government records can also be requested under the state open records law. Unfortunately, public officials sometimes deny that they are required to turn over information, deny that the public has any right to information, or fail to provide information in a timely way. To ensure that you get the information you need, you should review the section on Practical Tips for Getting Government Records.
If you are interested in attending the meetings of state or local government bodies, you should review the section on Access to State and Local Government Meetings. The most familiar examples of these kinds of government bodies at the local level include school boards, city councils, boards of county commissioners, zoning and planning commissions, police review boards, and boards of library trustees. At the state level, examples include state environmental commissions, labor boards, housing boards, and tax commissions, to name a few.
Courts and Court Information
The court system is yet another resource-rich place for you to access information. Your right to access the court system stems from the First Amendment, and has been expanded to give you the ability to attend almost all court proceedings and inspect public court records. The law provides important tools that you can use to help you understand the intricacies of a particular case, or watch how the court system performs. For example, you can use court records to check whether a doctor has previously been sued for malpractice, or to find the outcome of a criminal case.
You should first determine whether you need to access the information at the state or federal level. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, visit the pages that discuss access to court proceedings in federal court or state court, for information on your right to attend trials and other court proceedings. If, on the other hand, you want to review court records, such as legal complaints, motions, and other filings, visit the page on Federal Court Records or State Court Records, which describes your right to access court records and provides information on why your request may be denied, and how to appeal a denial. While there is no guarantee that you will get every court record or attend every court proceeding you desire, we've put together some tips that will help ensure that you take full advantage of the wealth of information available through state and federal courts. See the page discussing Practical Tips for Accessing Courts and Court Records for more information.
You may also wish to talk with the individuals associated with a court case. Visit the page on Access to Jury and Trial Participants to understand your ability to contact those who participated in the court proceeding such as the judge, lawyers, parties, witnesses, and jurors.
If, after reviewing the information in this section, you are still not sure where to start, you can always just browse one of the topics listed below:
- Access to Government Records: Describes federal and state freedom of information laws and provides practical advice on how to use these laws to acquire government records.
- Access to Government Meetings: Provides an overview of federal and state open meetings laws and explains how to assert your right to attend meetings held by federal, state, and local agencies, boards, committees, and other government bodies.
- Access to Congress and the President: Outlines the special set of rules that govern access to Congress and Presidential records.
- Access to Courts and Court Records: Provides an overview of federal and state laws that grant you the right to access federal and state court records and court proceedings.