Posts Tagged ‘SPJ’

Washington’s governor needs to use veto pen to make stand for transparency

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

A legislature has rushed through a bill curtailing the state’s public records act, waiving rules to minimize public comment and present the governor with a bill that has enough votes to override any veto, and members of the public are as mad as hell.

While that sounds like Utah’s infamous House Bill 477, which gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, this scenario actually played out in Washington state last week.

In response to a Thurston County Superior Court judge’s ruling that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, Senate Bill 6617 was introduced to nullify it.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, the bill declares that the Legislature is not subject to the public records law.

While the bill does make some records public, such as lawmakers’ calendars and final actions in disciplinary procedures, it takes giant leaps backwards in transparency.

The bill renders the court battle over lawmakers’ records moot because it is retroactive back to 1889 when Washington became a state.

But wait, that’s not all.

If someone challenges a record denial by either the Senate Secretary or the Clerk of the House, the appeal can only be heard by one of two legislative committees, and the committee’s ruling is final and cannot be challenged in court.

The bill takes effect as soon as it becomes law. That negates any attempt to overturn it at the ballot box.

If you think the bill is bad, the way it was passed in the Legislature was worse.

The bill was introduced late in the session, on Feb, 21, and was put up for a Senate vote without going through the usual committee process.

Lawmakers did agree to have a “work session” where stakeholders such as the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington could weigh in against the bill, but that was not enough to stop this legislative juggernaut.

The bill passed 41-7 in the Senate on Feb. 23, and minutes later the House of Representatives voted 83-14 in favor of it.

Lawmakers defended the bill with pleas that they were protecting their constituents from having their tales of personal woes and problems exposed by prying reporters who request lawmakers email and correspondence.

Another argument that was brought up was that responding to public records requests would be too onerous for lawmakers and their support staff.

Plus, they argued that the state’s judicial branch is exempt from the Public Records Act, so why shouldn’t they.

But as Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and Allied Daily Newspapers’ Executive Director Rowland Thompson point out, the judiciary’s exemption was worked out over a course of years, with open-government advocates at the table. And the system they came up with provides an independent review of any record denial.

The bill is now before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has until Thursday to either sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

And Inslee’s getting a lot of calls to veto the bill. The Seattle Times reviewed more than 540 constituent emails it requested from Inslee’s office, and found that there were none in support of the bill. And several papers in the state, including the Times, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Bellingham Herald and others, ran front-page editorials demanding Inslee veto the bill.

While Inslee is supportive of transparency in government, he has hinted that vetoing a bill supported by a veto-proof majority, would be futile.

No, it wouldn’t. It could stop this bill in its tracks, or at least make legislators take full responsibility for thumbing their noses at the public’s right to know.

Sure, the bill’s got more than enough votes to overturn a veto, but when the moment of truth comes, some lawmakers may question the justice of their cause when faced with overriding a veto that the public fully supports in an election year. Politicians know better than most people that discretion is the better part of valor.

And even if lawmakers stick to their guns and override the veto, Inslee will have shown the people that he values transparency, even when it is not convenient. And by doing so, he would force the Legislature to take full ownership of the bill. They were the ones who approved it, and they were the ones who made it become law, even though the public made it perfectly clear that they value transparency, just as they did when they enacted the Public Records Act through a referendum in the 1970s.

Donald W. Meyers, a reporter/multimedia journalist at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, is a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and is SPJ’s Region 10 Director

Meet SPJ’s 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information Fellow

The government works for us.” Five simple yet powerful words, instilled in me by Boston University data journalism professor Maggie Mulvihill, changed the course of my reporting career forever.

As an aspiring environmental journalist, I had envisioned myself writing stories from the field, National Geographic style, as opposed to poring over government data and documents and sending out FOIA requests. I just didn’t know how much information was out there, and all the possibilities open to me through investigative work. After publishing a campaign finance article covering major donors in Massachusetts, I realized, the real stories lie within those documents hidden in plain sight.

Yet as I’m sure fellow reporters who have relied on the freedom of information laws can attest: It doesn’t always seem like the government does work for us. In a single semester of beat reporting, I encountered government officials who were unfamiliar with public records laws, others who took months to respond, and — my personal pet peeve — others who sought payment for running of single pages of records (not exactly feasible for a college student on a low budget).

So why do journalists continue to fight the FOIA battle, to take on these in-depth, time-consuming, painstaking processes for a single story? I can only imagine it’s for the same reason I chose to learn more about FOIA through this SPJ fellowship: The information is important. It allows journalists to fulfill their roles as government watchdogs and occasionally, to make an important difference.

My desire to motivate change is concentrated on an area of admitted lesser prominence in journalism: environmental reporting. It’s a challenging beat riddled with scientific jargon, with controversy and uncertainty, and seemingly endless reams of obscure quantitative data. My passion stems from an undergraduate education in ecology and conservation biology, complete with a study abroad experience in the Amazon rainforest and an internship in environmental education.

Although many news outlets don’t provide regular environmental coverage, the focus on the beat has been growing. Articles about oil spills in California, Texas droughts, and President Obama’s plan to “Save the Bees” dominated my news feed this week. And I suspect the need for coverage will only increase, as will the need to collaborate with the EPA, Departments of Energy and Agriculture, and other government organizations with valuable data and documents to aid in reporting.

So how does FOIA play into environmental journalism? More importantly, why should journalists care about the environment, or cover these stories in their publications in the first place? These are the questions I hope to answer during my Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information fellowship with SPJ this summer.


Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow this blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley at or interact on Twitter: @amayrianne.


Oklahoma State University wins SPJ’s National Black Hole Award

Oklahoma State University made history by becoming the first university to win SPJ’s not-so-coveted Black Hole Award.

The Cowboys were nominated by Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, for several offenses against open government, such as classifying parking tickets as information protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and identifying a sexual assault as a burglary on a Clery Act report.

But what put Oklahoma State over the top (or into the gutter, depending on your perspective), was its decision to hide behind FERPA to protect the “privacy” of a suspected serial sexual predator. OSU had four verified complaints from students at a fraternity that they were sexually assaulted by another student, yet the university did not notify police or alert students to the potential predator in their midst.

Instead, OSU handled the matter through a closed-door administrative hearing. University officials defended the action on the grounds that FERPA barred them from revealing the suspect’s name, even to the police.

FERPA was meant to protect academic records — college applications, test scores and transcripts — from prying eyes. It was not meant to be a “Harry Potter”-like cloak that hides any scrap of paper that contains a student’s name.

Oklahoma State now joins a rouge’s gallery that includes the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services, and the Georgia, Wisconsin and Utah legislatures. The Utah Legislature had the distinction of winning the first national Black Hole award for railroading through the infamous HB477 in 2011, which would have gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act.

That bill was repealed amid public fury, a petition drive to put legislation repealing the bill on the next ballot, front-page editorials in the state’s largest newspaper denouncing the bill and the national publicity generated by the Black Hole award.

FOI goes on the road, mayor fined in Arkansas

Arkansas  is showing it takes Freedom of Information seriously.

Recently, Craighead County Special Judge Orville Clift fined officials from Bono for an FOI violation, The Associated Press reports.  Mayor Billy Stephens was fined $200, and Aldermen John Dodd, Leon Hamilton and Jerry Sullins $250 each for failing to publicly announce a meeting they held regarding a new police chief. Additionally, each received 30 days suspended  jail time and were ordered to attend an educational FOIA class, held by the Arkansas Press Association, in hopes the education will help them avoid future infractions.

Perhaps the Bono officials would have benefited by attending one of Arkansas’ ongoing FOIA education initiatives.

Dubbed the FOI ” Road Show,” this workshop has hit the road in Arkansas with the aim to educate officials and the public on freedom of information laws.  In this proactive move, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has joined with the Arkansas Press Association. Although targeted to public bodies that handle FOI requests, interested members of the public are also invited to attend. The road show will stop in Little Rock on June 12 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the Bowen School of Law.  This is the second installment of this year’s roadshow, with fall workshops planned in Fayetteville and Magnolia.

The event is free and includes lunch, but participants will need to register before the event.  Visit the Arkansas Attorney General’s website or for more information.

Other helpful resources:

  • Check out Sunshine Review for information on transparency, FOI and government in your state.
  • Click here to find out more about freedom of information laws and contact people in your state.
  • Arkansans: Get your free copy of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Handbook here.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email – –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

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FOI Tip of the Week: New online FOI training videos for SPJ members posted

The folks here at SPJ are dedicated to providing high-quality tips and training for professional journalists on topics ranging from social media to narrative writing.

But one of the pillars of journalism most dear to our hearts is, without a doubt, the public’s right to freedom of information.

Public records provide journalists with some of their hardest-hitting stories, and this week SPJ added new training videos to its website to show members how to get the most use out of public records in their communities.

We posted five new FOI training videos to the site Monday that are accessible to all SPJ members. (If you’re not a member of SPJ, you won’t be able to access them. Unless, that is, you head over to the website and become a member – thereby gaining access to the FOI videos and loads of other useful training materials.)

The videos focus on various aspects of FOI, including how to request electronic records, overcome wrongful agency denials and get speedier responses to requests.

The videos feature tips from SPJ FOI Committee Chairman David Cuillier and include cameos from your SPJ HQ staff.

Once you’ve finished watching the FOI videos, you can hone your freelancing chops by checking out the new freelance-focused videos we just added as well.

All videos are part of SPJ’s ECAMPUS: Where Journalists Go to Know training program.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email ( or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).


FOI Tip of the Week: FOI Center resources varied and helpful

Need to beef up your FOI knowledge?

Swing by the website for the FOI Center, a reference and research library at the Missouri School of Journalism and headquarters for the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Writing your first or fourth or 50th FOIA letter and want to compare yours with a few samples to make sure you’ve got it right? The center’s site has several.

Need a quick way to access information on your state’s access laws? It’s got plenty of links for that too. (You can also check out SPJ’s state FOI resources listing if you want some extra FOI goodness.)

Want the skinny on key media law issues? The center compiled links about a variety of topics that can help you see past the legal mumbo-jumbo to the core of the issues.

So the next time you’ve got a FOI question or need to find an open access resource, click on over to the FOI Center’s website for a quick fix.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email ( or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).


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