Shining a light on communities through public information

In honor of Sunshine Week, AHCJ invited organizations devoted to government transparency to write about how their work can help health care reporters. Here is the first of four.

Sunshine Week may be just one week out of the year, but the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press works every day to protect the right to public information. We have seen firsthand the important role that public information plays in producing more complete and accurate reporting on issues that deeply affect our communities –  how taxpayer dollars are spent, if elected officials are acting in the best interests of those they serve, and whether those in government are abusing the power they hold.

For example, last year we represented The Camarillo Acorn, a local newspaper in California, after it was sued in the course of reporting on a story that shed light on a public health official’s alleged misuse of taxpayer funds.

Just last month, we supported the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Associated Press in their fight at the Nevada Supreme Court against an unconstitutional prior restraint barring them from reporting on a public, anonymized autopsy record for a victim of the Las Vegas shooting. Reporting on public records like autopsy reports helps shed light on the brutality of mass shootings and what transpired during these types of tragedies.

And last week, Washington’s governor vetoed legislation that would have exempted legislators from the state’s public records law after residents, news media, and organizations including the Reporters Committee strongly spoke out against the measure.

Despite these victories for open government, we have seen new restrictions on access to sources of information. Proposed legislation across the country has sought to shield government activities from public view. And instead of fulfilling public records requests, some public officials are instead filing lawsuits against those who seek access to information.

Sunshine Week provides an opportunity to examine how we can help journalists overcome these kinds of challenges in accessing the information they need to report the news.

Open records laws are intended to foster transparency and trust between government and those it serves – but these laws can only fulfill that promise if the press and public can use them to access information. Public records belong to the public, and we must work to ensure these laws are upheld and strengthened so the press can shine a light into the darkest corners and the public can hold government accountable.

While Sunshine Week may end March 17, the following resources from the Reporters Committee are available to journalists and news organizations year-round to help them navigate access issues:

  • Our Digital Journalist’s Legal Guide details what journalists should know about their rights to gather and report the news, including information about access public records and places, meetings, and courtrooms.
  • The Federal Open Government Guide outlines how journalists can obtain public records from federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act. The Reporters Committee also manages wiki, another free resource aimed at helping journalists better understand the Freedom of Information Act. Our iFOIA tool also allows journalists to create, submit, track, and manage both state and federal public records requests through a single website.
  • Our Open Government Guide provides state-by-state information on open records and meetings laws, and the Open Courts Compendium includes rules and case law governing access to court proceedings and records in each state.
  • And our Legal Defense Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week by attorneys to answer questions from journalists and media lawyers.

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