I’ve had the great privilege of working with probably the best First Amendment attorney in Ohio, Dave Marburger of BakerHostetler, LLP. Dave and I teamed up to write a book called Access with Attitude – An Advocate’s Guide to Freedom of Information in Ohio. Access with Attitude is not a book about the law. It’s a book about how to USE the law. And yes, the Kindle edition is available.
One critical piece of advice we give in the book is this: remember when you’re writing a public records request you’re not writing it for the public agency, you’re writing it for a judge.
Seldom will you go to court. But if you have to, it is a judge who examines your request and it is a judge who examines the rejection from the public agency. Is your request well framed? Have you given your legal counsel strong ammunition, or have you hurt your own cause?
When writing a public records request:
o Know what you want. Usually, this requires some basic research. Get on the phone and call the agency and describe what it is you’re trying to find. Under Ohio law, the agency has a responsibility to help you find the records. Often, a particular type of record will have a specific designation. For example, when a police officer uses force, the officer has to fill out a use of force report. The police department will have a specific designation for that report, let’s say a UOF-Report. Once you know what the report is called, you’re able to make a far more focused request. That helps the public agency find what you want. It helps you get the public records you’re after.
o List and number your requests. That makes it easy to follow up on the phone.
o Don’t go after EVERYTHING. Understandably, one legitimate reason a public agency can refuse a request is if it is overbroad.
o Specify the time frame. Are you looking for all records for a specific day, a specific month?
o And remember, if a portion of a record is exempt from disclosure the remainder of the record is still public.
One great strength of our democracy is the transparency we have in our government. Public records are exactly that, PUBLIC. And what those records show can be extremely helpful. Several years ago, my daughter was coming home with horror stories about how bad her Spanish teacher was. I submitted a public records request for the teacher’s performance evaluations and discovered complaints going back ten years and a letter from the principal urging that the woman be fired.
Check out the right column on IRE’s (Investigative Reporters & Editors) web site, and take a look at the EXTRA EXTRA column to see some of the finest reporting in the nation. Check out Propublica.org. Look at the fabulous investigations done by the Center for Public Integrity. What you’ll find time and time again is the key, critical facts in these reports come from public records. We should all be immensely thankful we live in a country where the citizen has a right to see, inspect, and copy public records.
Public records don't belong to some government agency; they belong to us, we the people.###