Easy FOIA Tips From One of Illinois’ Best Reporters

Posted September 18, 2018 by Bill Wheelhouse

Associated Press Political Writer John O’Connor is an expert at using FOIA to obtain documents for scoops and added depth to his reporting.  He spoke to the Illinois News Broadcasters Association convention over the weekend.    He has advice for those who would like to do more of this type of reporting.  Here is John’s list:

  1. Know what types of records public bodies keep; public-records laws often require public bodies to keep a list of the records available. If you know the type of record you want but are unsure how it’s warehoused or what relevant statistics are maintained, ask the public body’s FOIA officer ahead of time how it is kept, what is possible to produce, and in what format _ that will save time and hassle down the line.
  2. That said, don’t shy away from requesting under FOIA the records you want. You don’t need to give in to public information or FOIA officers who say, “What are you trying to find? Let me help you” while they try to steer you away from or stymie your goal. Find out how it’s kept and request it. You don’t need to explain to anyone what your line of inquiry is.
  3. Most public-records laws have exemptions for “categorical requests” _ “all documents related to Program X.” But short of that, they often issue denials using very broad definitions of requests that are “unduly burdensome,” so design some parameters ahead of time. On the other hand, don’t limit yourself. If the public body says it’s still too broad, break it down into pieces.
  4. Know the law. Know the exemptions in the law and carefully review how public bodies use them in denying your request. FOIA laws typically require a public body to not just cite the exemption but explain why it applies. The burden is on the public body. If it’s not in the denial letter, ask the FOIA officer to explain how the exemption applies, and ask him/her to cite case law to back the claim. You don’t have to be a civil litigator to be conversant with the law. Search engines will provide easy-to-understand explanations of case law that applies. After a while, you’ll be able to cite back to the FOIA officer competing case law.
  5. Use the resources of a collegiate or professional press association. They often have public-access lawyers on retainer who can help you. Or call the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (https://www.rcfp.org/). If staff members there can’t help you, they can tell you who can.
  6. Denials are sometimes stories. Report on outlandish denials or those about significant public issues. You don’t want to do this too often, lest you be mischaracterized as a whiner. But remember _ and put it in your story _ that the overwhelmingly majority of FOIA requests don’t come from nosy reporters, or ambulance-chasing lawyers, or ivory tower academics _ they come from everyday taxpayers. Access to actions by public bodies is a huge issue and denials need to be exposed.
  7. Don’t be discouraged. FOIA laws can be wonderful tools to pry open the secrets of government, or they can be abused to stonewall. Be patient. Show the public body you’re not going away.