By A. Matthew Deal and Emilie Yam, SPLC staff writers
Washington, D.C. - In a new, $450 million, state-of-the-art museum of news in Washington, D.C., media professionals, government officials and open-government advocates gathered on March 14 at the 10th annual National Freedom of Information Day Conference to discuss recent changes to the Freedom of Information Act and the importance of sunshine laws to journalists.
The conference was an early kick-off for Sunshine Week, an event that educates the public about open government, which began March 17 and runs through March 21. The week-long observance is sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Sunshine Week often features events like the Newseum's FOI Day to promote awareness among journalists and policymakers on issues concerning public access to information. These events serve as a way to educate journalists on recent changes and trends that affect their ability to get records from public institutions.
Sunshine Week focuses not only on the federal Freedom of Information Act but also on other topics surrounding open government, such as state open-records laws. These laws are the functional equivalents of the federal Freedom of Information Act for state public institutions, and they are usually more relevant for student journalists reporting on issues involving their high schools or universities.
Recent examples of both progress and setbacks to open government are prevalent.
In Connecticut, a commission decided Feb. 13 that the Yale University Police Department was performing a public function under state law, and that the public should have access to its records. In Virginia, the General Assembly on Feb. 26 passed a bill restricting the disclosure of information about donors to three public universities, much to the chagrin of open-government advocates. In Pennsylvania, a new law was signed Feb. 14 that updated the state's open records laws, informally regarded as one of the worst in the nation.
For better or worse, sunshine and access to information are news these days.
In December, Congress passed and President Bush signed a bill updating the federal FOI law for the first time in more than a decade. Corinna Zarek, FOI Service Center director for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said two of the biggest changes are the addition of penalties for agencies that take too long to respond to requests and the creation of an agency to mediate disputes when FOIA requests are denied. At FOI Day, however, some open-government advocates voiced concern over how well the law will be implemented.
In the spirit of Sunshine Week, the Student Press Law Center each day will feature stories devoted to open-government issues. We have conducted several open-records tests to see how easily we could access information such as police incident reports at public and private universities, reimbursement records for high school superintendents, and student government association minutes and annual budgets.
We hope student journalists can take this collection of information and use it to enhance the quality of reporting at their institutions, learning from our experiences and drawing from the most effective strategies that we have learned through this process.