May 22nd, 2010
Day 26: Figure out the real reason for the denial
By David Cuillier
So far: 17 states, 8,385 miles, 35 sessions, 584 people (see schedule)
Richmond, Va. — Nicole Bell from NBC-12 in Richmond was trying to get a simple court file about an animal cruelty case, involving abused horses, and the clerk said “no.”
She was surprised. Why would something presumptively open, like a basic court file, be kept secret? The clerk said “I don’t feel comfortable giving that out,” Bell told me today (Saturday) at the session for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The clerk wanted to funnel the decision up to the Supreme Court!
Nicole said she was baffled, and she didn’t know what to do. That would baffle me, too.
Tip No. 32: Figure out the real reason for the denial – what is making the clerk nervous about releasing the record? Is it because there is one piece of information that is particularly sensitive (involving a child victim)? Is it because the clerk is afraid of getting in trouble by releasing it? Once you know the reason for the denial then you can work through the issues (e.g., talk about the potential balancing test of privacy and public interest, talk to a higher-up so that person doesn’t get in trouble). A study by Michele Kimball of the University of South Alabama showed that law enforcement clerks are sometimes arbitrary in whether they give out a legally disclosable document, depending on whether they think the person deserves it. For example, they will often provide victims records for free. But if they think the requester is out to get someone in the records they might say the record is secret to protect people in the records. They aren’t supposed to do that, but it often happens. By the way, when you write a story about the secrecy, make sure to name the specific person who is denying the record, and let that person know he or she will be named as the person responsible. Don’t just name the agency in general. That will make the person think twice.
Thanks to Megan Rhyme, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, for coordinating the event, which included more than 30 journalists and interested citizens. It was a great group. Three private investigators showed up as well! The Virginia Press Association hosted the gathering – sweet building.
Sunday: I drive to D.C. to get ready for a session there, and meet with various open government groups, including the new Office of Government Information Services (the federal FOIA “ombudsman” office).