Public records and public meetings
Journalists have a right and responsibility to access public records and attending public meetings as part of the information-gathering process. Open records laws typically presume that records created or maintained or meetings held by a government agency are open to the public unless they fall within a few specific exemptions written into the law. That means the government typically has the burden of explaining why it does not have to provide access to a record or meeting.
Staff manual process
Students, like all citizens, have the right to request public records. Public records of special interest to student media include teacher and administrator salaries, crime reports and minutes of official meetings. The staff manual should provide information about what type of records students might choose to request and how to do so
To request public records, student media staff should:
• Determine what records contain the information they are looking for. Most open records laws do not require government agencies to create records to comply with a request. Their obligation is only to provide access to records that already exist.
• Determine who is the holder of those records.
• Make a verbal request, preferably in person. Students should be polite and not presume they will not get what they are requesting.
• Know at least the citation to the relevant open records law (typically the open records law in their state if they are requesting records from a public school). A list of these laws can be found from the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
• If denied, ask for the specific statutory exemption that justifies the denial.
• Be persistent, but professional.
• Make a written request, if the steps above do not result in obtaining the records. Sample letters are available from the Student Press Law Center or the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
• Public records can take a while to access after they have been requested, so staff manuals should provide information for seeking the most commonly requested information.
• Requesting public records at the start of the school year can make it easier to write on those issues without waiting for access.
• Sometimes, public offices charge a fee for releasing public records (usually related to copying and administrative costs). By law, this fee should not be overly burdensome. Students should be cautious if a public institution is charging exorbitant rates. Under most open records laws the right to inspect public records is free.
• Likewise, requested public records must be released within a certain time frame (which varies by state law), or the institution must explain in writing why the records cannot be released. Students should keep all documentation related to these requests and responses.
• Student editors should conduct staff training on how to generate a public records request.
Freedom-of-Information Records Request Letter Generator, Student Press Law Center
Sample State Request Letters, National Freedom of Information Coalition
Access to Records Meetings, Places, Student Press Law Center
Lesson: Freedom of Information, Journalism Education Association
Lesson: Using Public Documents, Journalism Education Association
Audio: Using the Freedom of Information Act, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee, Press Rights Minute
Audio: Open Meetings Act, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee, Press Rights Minute
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