Freedom of Information requests have gained popularity as the general public gets more and more interested in various topics in their state and country. Sunshine laws are designed, in theory, to make public access to information more streamlined, easier to access, and more uniform. Sounds great on paper. The reality is somewhat murkier.
My first experience with filing a FOIA request was many years ago in Georgia. I was approached by a friend looking for help and answers in the death of her dearest friend. She told me her story, and based on what she said, I agreed that the story didn’t add up. The death had been ruled as an ‘accidental suicide’, as if there was even such a designation. According to reports in the newspaper, it was open and shut.
After a few phone calls, I had conformed that the case was in fact closed. The investigation was complete. So we submitted a request for investigative notes, interviews and diagrams, and the coroner’s report. It took them two months to send a letter that had three sentences, denying our request, advising us we could not appeal the decision, and advising us they were exempt from such requests. To this day, I have no idea what actually happened, and no idea why the sheriff, who was also the coroner, felt that his offices were exempt.
Fast forward to the past year, and I am seeing that sunshine laws aren’t any closer to being helpful to private citizens in general. For those of you that follow the Daniel Holtzclaw case, you know that there were two separate releases of emails that were supposedly destroyed. The first batch was fortunately crowd sourced, and I was able to get them easily. The second batch however has been problematic. For local and national reporters, a CD of the emails was prepared that could be picked up in person, or they could mail it out. When I attempted to request these emails, I was informed I would have to file a FOIA request, and if approved, it would cost $1.25 per page
There were over 4,000 pages of emails. There is absolutely no way I could afford to do that. That’s $5, 000.00 that they wanted in order to send me a CD that had already been researched, redacted, and prepared for release to the public. The average person couldn’t afford that. I requested exemption for the cost, and was told that only verified news agencies qualify. Needless to say, I still don’t have access to that second batch of emails.
However, as Michelle Malkin has experienced, even verified media requests are subject to some pretty ridiculous interpretations. She filed a FOIA request in relation to Daniel Holtzclaw that the state prosecutor’s office decided to play dumb with. They claimed they didn’t understand her requests, and that they have no record of a ‘Holtzclaw case’ per se. Greed is bad enough, but getting cutesy with verbiage is just a slap in the face. It’s an obvious ploy to avoid providing the information for no other reason that to be a thorn in the side of the requester.
It’s the same song with different dancers in the case of Jermane Scott. Some of the reasons for denial reportedly given to persons requesting information include the fact that ‘many women” have already requested it so they aren’t doing it anymore. They have also reportedly denied claims based on lost files, purged and destroyed files, and failure of the court reporter to respond. Sometimes they haven’t even bothered to respond at all to FOIA requests. If you are shocked by this, you shouldn’t be.
Even if rules and guidelines are clearly spelled out in each individual state’s laws, how can we force them to follow them? In short, the average person really can’t. Not many people can afford to hire an attorney to force a state or federal agency to adhere to these laws. The deck is stacked in their favor, and they know it. All we can do is make the requests, and make them as publicly as possible. Filing through a website like Muckrock helps somewhat. You can make everything public, so that even if you are denied, people can see why. It doesn’t always stop the shenanigans, but it does leave a great paper trail just in case someone does hire that lawyer and force the issue.
Another option is to scan any paper correspondence and post it on your website, Facebook page, personal blog, Instagram account or other social media. It makes it harder to ignore when it’s not just a denial that no one else is going to see. It’s time to let these state and federal agencies know that they are under the spotlight, and people are watching. If there is nothing to hide, then there is no reason to make it difficult for people looking to obtain information.
I am putting together a few FOIA requests that have been denied for others. I am going through these to make sure that I am specific about the information I am requesting, and also citing what laws support my requests. They may still deny me, but it won’t be because other women have already requested the information. And if they are foolish enough to cite that as a reason for denial, you’ll get to see that. We share our information here freely. We don’t horde it so that we can bleed it out as it suits us. In the pursuit of justice, the more people that have ALL the information, the better. More people can make more noise, especially people that are well informed.