Yes, filing a lot of FOIA requests is normal and good reporting

Aurora, Illinois Police Chief Kristen Ziman recently wrote on her blog:

“If reputable and respected journalists respond and tell me that it is perfectly normal to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, then I will stand corrected.”

And later:

“But I do believe FOIA requests should be strategic and not just a fishing expedition. That is where the disconnect seems to be.”

Her post was in response to criticism she received over a Facebook post in which she called out a local reporter for filing a lot of FOIA requests, which she characterized as a fishing expedition.

The local newspaper the Beacon-News had been seeking the dash cam footage and internal documents related to a 2016 traffic stop, where a man committed suicide after exchanging gunshots with an Aurora Police officer, according to reports. The police department released the footage on the Facebook post months after the FOIA request was made and the Illinois Attorney General’s office intervened.

Check out the Beacon- News’ coverage of its FOIA battle and Chief Ziman’s Facebook post here

Here’s SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee Chair Danielle McLean’s response to Chief Ziman’s question of whether filing FOIA requests for the sake of filing FOIA requests is normal:

Dear. Chief Ziman,

In response to your question, whether it is normal for reporters to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, the answer is yes and is a practice that is highly encouraged. It is critical for reporters to request records routinely to learn about government functions, even if the request doesn’t entail a specific record for a specific story.

For instance, reporters often put in routine requests for public officials’ emails to stay informed about their communications, police logs to monitor police activity and arrests, minutes of public meetings that had previously entered into executive session to understand decisions and discussions that occurred behind closed doors, and campaign filings to see who may be bankrolling a politician’s campaign.

There are other examples where reporters request records that might appear as “fishing” expeditions, such as requests for databases, budgets, and investigation reports. But in reality this type of activity isn’t actually fishing – it’s observing government operations. It’s seeing what the government is up to, which is the fundamental premise behind FOIA and state public record laws, as reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sincerely,
Danielle McLean
Chair
Freedom of Information Committee
Society of Professional Journalists

 


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