The best advice I’ve ever seen on the internet may be the meme that advises, “Dance like no one is watching, email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”
Journalists often get their hands on emails that the sender never intended for public consumption. Sometimes that’s the result of someone forwarding the information to us, but other times government employees and elected officials are surprisingly forgetful that “we the people” have a right to read the communications they send and receive about their taxpayer-funded work.
It was only four years ago that former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned after journalists successfully waged a legal battle to make First Lady Cylvia Hayes’ emails public — emails that showed her asking Kitzhaber’s taxpayer-funded staff to book hotels for her private business trips. At the same time, then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s approval ratings were at an all-time low as he dealt with the fallout of journalists obtaining an aide’s infamous email that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Journalists will be celebrating public records during Sunshine Week all week, but public records laws aren’t only for investigative journalists. You have the exact same rights as any reporter to access emails, police reports, building permits, campaign contributions, meeting minutes, salaries, contracts, voting records, budgets and a long list of other information.
In fact, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, these days only 7.6 percent of public records requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act are filed by journalists.
What might you do with public records if you’re not a journalist? They might support your side of the story in a lawsuit, help you do due diligence on a piece of property you want to buy or allow you to get a better understanding about how a piece of legislation came to be. You might have to pay a fee to help the agency recoup the cost of the staff time for filling the request, but they have to give them to you.
I started my career as a journalist with a particular appreciation for public records, as my student reporter days were spent at Brigham Young University. While BYU had a wonderful journalism program, we faced unique challenges in covering the university because it was privately funded. Records that would have been available to student reporters at our rival University of Utah — police reports about high-profile campus incidents, the construction budget for a new building, coaching salaries — were not public records, and BYU was not inclined to voluntarily provide the information.
It caused a scandal, then, when someone leaked a copy of a semester’s budget for the student leadership organization and our newspaper published a report outlining how much of the budget was going toward dinners and other perks for the student body council itself instead of activities for the student body at large. There was pushback from the BYU Student Association, but there were also many campus organizations that suddenly decided the time was ripe to implement written policies on responsible use of department credit cards.
That’s why public records are so important — it’s human nature to behave better when someone is looking over our shoulder. So happy Sunshine Week, and may all of your public records requests be granted.
Jade McDowell is the News Editor for the Hermiston Herald.