Journalist group encourages understanding of FOI laws

Friday, November 13, 1998

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Using public records, a newspaper in Minnesota completed an expose on snowmobile accidents that revealed that many of the people who drive them had their drivers’ licenses revoked.

A newspaper in Rhode Island relied on accident reports to detail the poor driving record of the state’s school bus drivers.

But Sandra Chance, assistant director for the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information in Gainesville, Fla., says that new privacy laws in both states that seal many motor vehicle records would prevent those newspapers from reporting those stories today.

“Hardly a week goes by where you don’t see something about how easy it is to invade your privacy,” Chance said. “What we don’t hear is why it’s a good thing to have access to public records. We only hear the horror stories.”

For a session titled “State of Access,” the Society of Professional Journalists and the First Amendment Center invited members of local advocacy groups, neighborhood groups and the local media to discuss current access laws regarding public records in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Panel members included Los Angeles Times reporters Dan Weikel and Ray Herndon; Ian Marquand of KPAX television in Missoula, Mont.; Joel Campbell of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah; and Frank Gibson of The Tennessean in Nashville.

Specifically, the program explored ways everyday citizens can and should fight for information to which they have a right.

Chance said the public needs to understand that the right of access extends beyond the press and “that it’s a public right first.” Despite concerns of privacy, the panelists said, more records need to be open so the public can keep informed.

“If a record is that private, then maybe the government shouldn’t have it, either,” Chance said. “If the government has a right to the record, shouldn’t we have an equal access to it?”

She said it was a myth that most records requests come from reporters, noting a recent survey showing as many as three-fourths of all such requests come from citizens.

Chance added that the motivation for lawmakers to improve access laws has always come from their constituents, not the media.

Some audience members said they’d not only had difficulty accessing records, but also problems in sparking the interest of local newspapers and television stations to report their plight.

Andrea Conte of You Have the Power, said state officials routinely deny the Nashville advocacy group access to records in the state’s sexual-offenders registry. Conte said that when the group approached local news reporter about the closed records, they weren’t interested.

Panelists said that when government officials close a record or deny someone access to a meeting, that’s a news story.

Kyle Niederpruem, an Indianapolis Star-News reporter who chairs SPJ’s Freedom of Information committee, said she hoped the journalist group could encourage the formation of FOI coalitions in every state. She said about 25 states already have groups consisting of journalists, citizens and politicians that keep watch over public access laws.