Using Public Records Laws to Expose Government Misdeeds

Rosenfeld, Seth
September 2004
Nieman Reports;Fall2004, Vol. 58 Issue 3, p89
This article focuses on the use of public record laws to expose government misdeeds in the U.S. Federal bureaucracies have a long and well-documented history of needlessly stamping public records confidential. No administration has embraced the Freedom of Information Act that Congress nonetheless passed to strengthen it. Public records laws do not require agencies to conduct research for requesters, beyond a reasonable search of their own files. Many journalists do not bother with records act requests. In fact, the biggest users of the Freedom of Information Act are corporations seeking information on competitors and regulators. The court record shows that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation spent more than 15 years and $1 million in tax dollars trying to suppress public records documenting its unlawful activities. Freedom of Information Act requests are most likely to succeed when they grow out of and are informed by regular reporting. But Freedom of Information Act requests are worth pursuing even if they take time to produce results. Reporters can easily submit a request, then periodically pursue it in between their other work on the beat or the projects team. Public record laws can play a critical role in that mission and in protecting the public's right to know.


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