3/15/2016 6:44:00 AM Sunshine is healthy for the body: Understanding government actions News Analysis
Jessica Leighty of The Lakeland Times
Throughout the week, newspapers, legislators and civic groups will shine a spotlight on all levels of government. This national movement is known as Sunshine Week.
The purpose of this exploration is to evaluate whether or not our local, state and federal governments are keeping their promise to provide transparency and openness to the public.
In 2002, legislative bodies in Florida tried to expand who and what entities were exempt from the state's open records law. They tried to make less documents available to the public involving the government's actions.
In response to these legislative proceedings, a group of state newspapers hosted "Sunshine Sunday" with the goal to increase awareness for open government. For three straight Sundays, newspapers posted reports and commentary about government transparency and freedom of information.
After the third Sunday, the state's legislative bodies chose not to add the exemptions to the open records law - an estimated 300 persons, agencies and entities.
Three years later, Sunshine Week became a national initiative.
Sunshine Week goes beyond the media and citizen journalism. It's not about writing stories and tracking down leads. It's about the greater public's knowledge of local, state and federal government.
It has long been taught citizens don't just have rights, they have responsibilities. One such responsibility is to understand and evaluate the people we place in office, and ultimately in charge of our well being.
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, "To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly." If we do not question and thereby understand our government, we do not understand the foundation of our everyday lives.
Sunshine across the nation
The right to government information has been a topic for decades. Even before the Freedom of Information Act was created in 1967, the general public has been promised a certain amount of access to government documents and data. The extent of this access is widely contested.
Different rules apply to federal and state documents. On the federal level, the government has to weigh national security against a citizen's right to know. However, on the state level, disputes about who can request records and who has to hand over records frequently rise.
State Fair of Texas v. Riggs
In March of 2015, attorney Jennifer Riggs filed an open records request for financial documents from the State Fair of Texas. According to Riggs, a client was seeking information on a failed park attraction costing in the millions.
In this case, the State Fair of Texas argued it was not a "government body" as defined by the Texas Public Information Act. The state fair did not receive state funding and felt it was not subject to open records law.
Both Riggs and a judge felt otherwise, based on the state's attorney general. The State Fair of Texas was ordered to hand over its financial records and pay a penalty over $77,000.
Krakauer v. Montana Commissioner of Higher Education
Author Jon Krakauer released a novel titled "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" in April 2015. The book focuses on the lack of justice for victims of rape and uses the University of Montana as an example.
A student was charged with rape and expelled from the university. He was later re-admitted to the school and the football team and acquitted of criminal charges.
Krakauer requested school documents hoping to find an explanation as to why the student's expulsion was overturned. The school refused the records request, making several arguments, one of which was the confidentiality of student records.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) mandates schools acquire consent from students over the age of 18 to release records. This mandate applies to schools receiving federal funding. Both the student and the University of Montana fall under these guidelines.
Krakauer won the case in district court, however an appeal is scheduled to be heard at the state level in April.
Maryland Department of the Environment
In 2012, the Maryland Department of the Environment received an open records request for reports containing 280 nutrient management plans. The reports explained how waste management is handled on poultry farms and other caged-animal operations.
The Maryland Department of the Environment was willing to produce the records - for a fee of $4,845.
According to the Associated Press, the department explained the high price as labor beyond two free hours. A spokesperson for the environmental department told AP the department receives over 4,000 requests a year under the open records law and does not have the financial resources to fulfill all the requests while maintaining daily duties concerning public health and environment.
Friedmann v. Marshall County, TN
In 2014, Alex Friedmann, an editor for Prison Legal News, requested copies of jail policies and contracts from the Marshall County Jail Complex in Tennessee.
The request was made through a written letter and the Marshall county sheriff stated he would fill the request if Friedmann appeared in person.
The state's open records law stated a citizen did not have to appear in person if he or she could clearly outline what documents they were seeking.
After 49 days of back-and-forth emails between Friedmann, county officials and various lawyers, Friedmann renewed his request. This time, he submitted a form the sheriff's department created throughout the 49-day process.
After the form was submitted, the sheriff's department failed to respond within the required timeframe outlined in Tennessee's open records law. Friedmann then gave a final notice to the sheriff's department threatening legal action if he did not receive a response within two weeks.
The matter eventually went to court and the sheriff's department was ordered to produce the records at no charge as well as to pay Friedmann's attorney fees.
Challenges with open records
As shown in each of these cases, there can be several challenges when seeking open records.
Similar to the Maryland situation, some states allow agencies to charge fees for open records. Oklahoma's law explains a requester's reason for wanting to see the documents can affect the amount of the fee and Utah specifically prohibits charging such fees.
There are differences in citizenship requirements as well. Missouri doesn't require state residency or even U.S. citizenship from requestors, Pennsylvania limits records to U.S. citizens only and Delaware and Arkansas require state citizenship.
Limits on what types of documents can be requested are typically outlined by each state. Washington prohibits imprisoned criminals from requesting information about those involved in his or her incarceration. Illinois specifically excludes documents on child death cases and Connecticut requires certain officials to be notified if any person in a correctional or mental health facility makes a request.
Several state laws explain a requester does not need to give a reason for a request, however the reason might help approve the request. A few states also clearly state no one person has more right to open records than another person.
California law states a person requesting records about his or herself does not have a greater right to the records than anyone else. Conversely, Colorado's open records law says a person has a greater right to records about his or herself.
And finally, North Dakota specifically outlines there is no greater right to open records for the media.
Because states are allowed to create their own open records laws, each state's system can be quite different. This allows open records requests to have many different - and sometimes controversial - results.
Jessica Leighty may be reached via email at email@example.com.
Correction: this article originally listed an incorrect fee amount in the matter of the Maryland Department of Environment. It has been updated to reflect the correct amount.