By David Cuillier | July 7th, 2009
What makes for an effective records request letter? Make sure to cite the law to make it clear you are serious.
In this month’s Quill magazine, I discuss results of two experiments I conducted to test the effectiveness of friendly request letters versus legalistic threatening letters. I found that police departments and school districts were more likely to respond to request letters that cited the law and reminded authorities of penalties for noncompliance (based on the Student Press Law Center online form letter). The legalistic letter also resulted in more agencies providing the records, responding faster and even providing lower copy fees. Frankly, the results baffled me – I had always assumed a friendly approach would be most effective (honey vs. vinegar). A few agencies were turned off by the tone of the legalistic letter, so I would be careful using it routinely, especially if you cover a beat and have to deal with the clerks day-to-day. My advice is to always ask in person first, politely and openly. Then if you are blown off, submit a legalistic letter.
Ultimately, these experiments indicate that the law is important, and reminding officials of the law will help move your records request along a little faster.