Matt Topic, a Chicago lawyer who has been able to break free important documents, joined us on MuckRock’s Slack channel to talk about government surveillance and answer common questions that can stump FOIA requesters.
Want to make sure you’re in the loop for our upcoming FOIA chats? Join MuckRock’s FOIA Slack today, and join us most Fridays at noon Eastern to hear from records experts and other requesters on strategies that can help open government.
This Friday at noon Eastern, we’ll be joined again by Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
Public records strategies from Matt Topic
If you don’t know where to start on a FOIA request, Topic recommends beginning with invoices, contracts, and payment records, adding that records “related to expenditures are easier to get.” Once you know what the agencies are paying for, you can expand your search.
If a state rejects your request for invoices, cite other cases where the judge has allowed the records to be released in your appeal. Highlighting instances where FOIAs have uncovered waste, fraud and corruption can also strengthen your case.
A good resource for finding each state’s open records and open meeting laws is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as well as MuckRock’s guide to state public records laws.
When requesting documents from court cases, Topic advised broader can be better, especially for open cases. Sometimes requesting court orders where the case information is redacted can still tell you how the court goes about things.
If you want to get death records, but don’t want to pay the fee for the death certificate, public records may help you avoid fees. If the death is being investigated, you can FOIA the police or prosecutors for any records indicating cause of death.
If you need to get emails, a good way to begin is to ask the number of hits specific names and keywords get within a timeframe. You can negotiate with the agency from there. For datasets, it is generally better to tell the agency what query you want to run. You can also begin with requesting information about their data structures.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In chat, someone noted that Hawaii requesters could reach out to the Civil Beat Law Center, which has a variety of free resources. It can also help to build rapport with police officers. Topic advised us to call and tell them what records you’re interested in and where you should start looking.
In closing, Topic quizzed us with this question:
“Who said this: When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and - eventually - incapable of determining their own destinies.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons