By JUDY PATRICK
Vice president for editorial development, New York Press Association
If only getting public records was as easy as filing a Freedom of Information request.
Far too many times in my career, my requests were met by denials, delays and massive redactions. It’s incredibly discouraging.
The National Press Club Journalism Institute offered a webinar earlier this month on approaches to requesting and obtaining public records using the Freedom of Information Act and state open records law. You can watch the 45-minute webinar here, but here some of my key takeaways.
- Try and get the fee waived. I had never heard of being able to get a fee waived but Miranda Spivak, a journalism fellow at the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said she has had success arguing that the records being sought are in the public interest and should be produced without charge.
- Ask for expedited processing. FOIL officers often say they’re swamped with requests but Mark Walker, FOIA coordinator of The New York Times’ Washington bureau, said you can lobby for expedited processing especially if your request is tied to a specific news event.
- Remember that the law applies to documents, not information.
- Records that should be out there for you to FOIL: Appointment calendars, emails, texts, most contracts. For anything enforced, inspected, licensed or purchased, there should be a record.
- Don’t submit a request that is too broad or sweeping. Avoid a request such as “any information related to XXX.”
- Do some homework to determine what records you are seeking. Look for the specific names of forms, for example.
- Make the request as easy as possible for the FOIL officer to fulfill.
- To help be more specific, use keywords. “all emails from [time frame] Jane Smith containing the keywords bridge, river and Jones.”
- Always ask for an estimated date when your request will be fulfilled.