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Open access to government documents? What's that?
February 9, 2004 7:19 AM   Subscribe

"I can make your life very difficult..." In January, journalists posing as regular citizens attempted to review documents under Florida's open access laws. 43% of all requests were denied, and in some cases volunteers were lied to, harassed or even threatened by government officials.
posted by Irontom (29 comments total)

 
Meanwhile, "This response does not constitute a denial of access..." Huh?

What's the point of these laws if the government's just allowed to ignore them?
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:27 AM on February 9, 2004


"He could have been a terrorist," Howard said. "We have to ensure the safety of children."

Like clockwork...
posted by trharlan at 7:27 AM on February 9, 2004


I liked this quote in particular:

"They cited a number of arbitrary reasons for their suspicions, including the volunteers' hair length, casual dress and, in one case, 'the look in his eyes.'"

Moral: Be sure to wear sunglasses and a suit when requesting government records.
posted by boltman at 7:31 AM on February 9, 2004


trharlan, I liked the follow-up to that quotation: "Howard couldn't explain how a terrorist might use his cell phone bill to harm children."
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:33 AM on February 9, 2004


"Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the governor has no authority over the local agencies included in the audit. He can't force sheriffs or municipal and county governments to train their employees, she said.....Asked if there was anything the governor could do to get the word to local agencies that open government is important, Faraj said, "We lead by example."

But the governor's office was the only one of six state agencies audited that failed to comply with the public records law. The volunteer said she was told she would have to give her name and address and fill out or sign a written request form.

Faraj denied that the governor's office violated the law and said the volunteer may have misunderstood what she was told."
- These shrubs : from a distance they all look the same.
posted by troutfishing at 7:50 AM on February 9, 2004


I'll bet 'sheer laziness' would explain the bulk of these denials. We are talking government drones here, after all.
posted by mischief at 8:41 AM on February 9, 2004


Yeah, saw this linked on BoingBoing.

These kind of studies are always interesting -- local officials rarely seem to know the law. They'll cooperate with an identified reporter to save themselves grief (bad publicity or legal trouble) but if they think it's just a kook (and many citizens who try to see public records are cranks of one sort of another) they will blow it off. They get emboldened when the national atmosphere is one of secrecy and arrogance.
posted by Slagman at 8:43 AM on February 9, 2004


We are talking government drones here, after all.

Fuckin' government drones.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:55 AM on February 9, 2004


While this is definitely not legal and a Bad Thing, I'm wondering if the high percentage of access denials listed in this article is due to the nature of the documents requested. Email and cellphone call records would seem to me to be, as the commenter in the article states, signs that the requester planned to make trouble for the person/agency involved. I have a feeling that the newspapers planning this "audit" might have decided in advance to go after records that were most likely to raise the hackles of those handling the requests. I would think that requests for, say, school board meeting minutes would be much more likely to be released with no questions or suspicions.

(Please understand that this does not excuse the denials and harrassment that the officials demonstrated in these requests. If state law unambiguously states that those records are fair game for citizens, with or without stated reasons for wanting them, then pretty much case closed. But I would think that at least some of the refusals are due to state and county officials who have not been schooled properly as to their official duties, not because they're trying to cover their butts or be obstructionist.)

"This response does not constitute a denial of access..."

I'm not sure what problem you have with the linked document. Assuming that it's true that the NPRC couldn't find any pertinent records (and yes, I know that's assuming quite a bit), what it says is correct: There is no denial of access to documents, since the documents requested don't exist. How is this bad?
posted by deadcowdan at 9:02 AM on February 9, 2004


The whole quote in context is funnier...

Some government agencies tried to justify their suspicions by citing heightened security concerns brought on by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a post-audit interview, Taylor County Superintendent Oscar Howard said his district was hesitant to produce his cell phone bill because the volunteer wouldn't give his name.

"He could have been a terrorist," Howard said. "We have to ensure the safety of children."

Howard couldn't explain how a terrorist might use his cell phone bill to harm children.

posted by CrazyJub at 9:47 AM on February 9, 2004


Could we just start copying the entire text of the article into the comments? I dont really feel like CLICKING and READING an entire foriegn document with white background.
posted by Satapher at 9:53 AM on February 9, 2004


" I'm wondering if the high percentage of access denials listed in this article is due to the nature of the documents requested."

Doesn't matter. The law says to hand them over, and they are to be handed over with no questions.
I was threatened with arrest by the redneck thugs that run the Escambia County Sherrif's dept. for requesting towing contracts. My presence in the office was announced by a woman yelling "Captain, we have a troublemaker in here", followed by a man emerging from his office and asking if I wanted to get arrested. When I told him why I was there, he said I could leave the office or be arrested.
Since I wasn't accompanied by a lawyer, I left.
posted by 2sheets at 10:28 AM on February 9, 2004


Audit volunteers encountered more than a dozen officials who said a record wasn't public, only to be corrected later by a supervisor or co-worker.

This tells me the workers don't like their job nor keep up to date with their current responsibilities. Had a similar incident with the local sheriffs. Could ask the same question over and over to each one yet receive a different answer each time, sometimes from the same sheriff whom I asked a day earlier. The wrong their was they all had the same paper work and data base to find my answer in. Notice this with any worker whom is bombarded with verbal requests. Take this more as laziness, "passing the buck".
posted by thomcatspike at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2004


I read that story this weekend here in St. Augustine and was amazed at the responses. According to a reporter for another paper that participated in the effort for the First Amendment Foundation, several volunteers were reduced to tears by their treatment in making these requests.

Though it's true that officials might not have responded so harshly if records less incriminating than phone records were requested, isn't that the point? We're paying for those calls, and if John Q. Public Official is abusive about handing over the records, it's a pretty good sign he's been using the phone inappropriately.
posted by rcade at 11:35 AM on February 9, 2004


Sad as this report is, at least Florida has the Sunshine Laws. What is it like in other states?
posted by piskycritter at 11:42 AM on February 9, 2004


What recourse does one have if denied access to public records? Is there person responsible for the denial legally responsible as well?
posted by ph00dz at 11:57 AM on February 9, 2004


Though it's true that officials might not have responded so harshly if records less incriminating than phone records were requested, isn't that the point?

Upon consideration, you have a good point. (Although I'm not sure I'd use the word "incriminating.") While it might be interesting from an academic point of view to find out what the overall refusal rate was by picking entirely random personnel/agencies to request from, and picking entirely random documents to request, the newspapers' goal (which is to test the Sunshine Law in real world conditions) would be best served to concentrate on those documents that are most likely to be denied improperly.
posted by deadcowdan at 12:32 PM on February 9, 2004


journalists posing as regular citizens

When did journalists stop having citizenship?

You'll report what we want you to report, plebe.
posted by namespan at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2004


I think this is certainly a case of looking for an outrageous issue to get worked up over. Since you'd need to be a lawyer with a large support team to understand most of the laws surrounding such material I think I can forgive.

How about we make government work better rather than making it work more? What we have now is a sinking ship.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:58 PM on February 9, 2004


Since you'd need to be a lawyer with a large support team to understand most of the laws surrounding such material I think I can forgive.

Actually, I think the law in Florida (and in Florida, it's actually part of the state constitution) is quite simple: if a citizen asks for a document created by the state government, the citizen must be given a copy of said document. There's no excuse for failure to comply with such a simple policy.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:51 PM on February 9, 2004


at least we've got a state constitution.. ;) and they're not *ALL* fat cats up there in Tally..
posted by shadow45 at 4:12 PM on February 9, 2004


"if a citizen asks for a document created by the state government"

So you could demand a copy of documents revealing everyone's social security number? And taxes? You can demand a copy of anyone's tax records?
posted by y6y6y6 at 4:26 PM on February 9, 2004


if a citizen asks for a document created by the state government, the citizen must be given a copy of said document. There's no excuse for failure to comply with such a simple policy

This is interesting. In my work there is a lot of concern about running afoul of HIPAA regulations. I would have thought some information, like names and addresses in 911 logs, would need to be protected unless the persons invloved agreed to release them. Same with school records that identify students (assuming someone requested these). I am a fan of open government, but it would seem the broadness of the Florida law butts up against Federal rules.
posted by MetalDog at 4:27 PM on February 9, 2004


There are some privacy exceptions, of course, and it varies by state. You can't get some driver's license info in California, cause there are so many celebrities who get stalked out there. But that's why the govt is generally given a period to have its lawyers review a request. They can redact all kinds of sensitive stuff, but if my taxes are paying for your cellphone, I have a right to know who you are calling. And yes, property tax records are public, as are most court records and meeting records. The presumption should be that a record is public. Secrecy is the first step to tyrrany.
posted by Slagman at 4:47 PM on February 9, 2004


I think this is certainly a case of looking for an outrageous issue to get worked up over. Since you'd need to be a lawyer with a large support team to understand most of the laws surrounding such material I think I can forgive.

I would assume that in a records office there would be some kind of information management system that would be able to tell automatically what documents could or could not be accessed under the constitution. They do that sort of thing in libraries very well.
posted by Hildago at 6:04 PM on February 9, 2004


Try being followed or threatened in Texas.
posted by calwatch at 10:13 PM on February 9, 2004


Howard couldn't explain how a terrorist might use his cell phone bill to harm children.

I understand they can cause very nasty paper cuts...
posted by pitchblende at 11:03 PM on February 9, 2004


How about an audit of all internet sites visited by govt. employees?

Any govt. employee that denies 3 requests gets sent to prison for life (3 strikes you're out!)...bah, I wouldn't support 3 strikes even for govt. employees--Except maybe elected ones.

Fascinating reading, thanks Irontom.
posted by Goofyy at 5:42 AM on February 10, 2004


I can make your life very difficult...

I always wonder about people who do the strong arm technique.

I like to reply: I can also make your very difficult, am a tad bit crazy, and have issues with remorse.
posted by Yossarian at 5:49 AM on February 10, 2004


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