I know I’ve covered freedom of information at least once before, but I think it’s important to repeat.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a great FAQ on how to use the federal Freedom of Information Act. The Web site is geared for bloggers, but it’s important information for anyone who reports to understand.
What the Web site doesn’t tell you, however, is that obtaining information under the federal FOIA is cumbersome. Most reporters give up because the process is so time-consuming. It can take years for the federal agencies to release information.
A 2004 report detailed how the Bush administration was holding back more documents — including to Congress — than other administrations. It’s a frustrating report to read. When I was researching a paper on FOIA, the information I read from a variety of sources angered me.
While it’s important to know the federal law, it’s even more important to know your state’s freedom of information or sunshine laws. During my time as a reporter, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act has been one of my most important tools.
Three years ago, the law helped me uncover private e-mail conversations between Board of Education members about a hot issue over school start time changes. Every year, I can obtain the list of the town’s top salaries under FOI. There is so much a reporter can obtain under sunshine laws.
But before anyone goes waving a FOI letter and threatening appeals if they don’t get the information they want, they should simply ask. Asking will get you more information and help foster better relationships. Good relationships are important for reporters, and sources aren’t going to react well when they are threatened with legal proceedings.