Public Records Access for the Media

Tom O'Hara, The Plain Dealer
Frank Gibson, The Tennesean

Tuesday, June 8, 2004, 12:15 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.
Special Libraries Association 2004 Annual Conference - News Division

Tom O'Hara, managing editor of the The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), talked about the findings of the Ohio public records access audit conducted by the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. More than 90 individuals participated in the project, representing more than 40 newspapers, two radio stations, the Associated Press, the University of Dayton and Ohio University. Audit results were published in participating Ohio newspapers on Sunday, June 13, 2004.

The goal of the project was to see how accessible Ohio state public records are. Ohio's open record law states that all public records should be made promptly available to any person who asks for a document.

During the audit, participants went to each of the state's 88 counties and asked for various public records. They went as private citizens, not reporters, and simply asked to see certain records. Audit findings showed that:

Most auditors reported that the public officials they encountered asked them for their names and other information, which is not required under the Ohio open records law.

Reasons for denying access to records generally fell into three categories:

According to Tom O'Hara, one of the biggest compliance problems stems from state officials' ignorance of the public records act. Their inclination is to just say no when people ask for documents.

Ohio's open records law isn't very stringent. For instance, other states such as Florida require an official to cite the exemption in the state code if they deny access. Ohio does not require that. Tom hopes that Ohio legislation will get tougher in the future.

Another way to enforce compliance is by financial penalties, such as suing state agencies if they deny access or imposing fines if an agency violates the open records act.

In general, newspapers around the country are not spearheading the effort for open government. Open record associations are doing most of the work in states.

Some other suggested solutions:

  1. Newspaper editors need to have upper management call their lawyers and fight for access when records are denied. Public officials pay attention to lawyers.
  2. Newspapers need to train their staff on the ins and outs of their state open records laws. Most reporters are clueless about the intricacies of open record laws, and they need coaching on what to do if an official denies access to a record.
  3. Government officials need training on what is and is not open.

Some factors are complicating the open records movement, such as new financial privacy laws, the Patriot Act and HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act).

Frank Gibson, political editor at The Tennessean, says that Tennessee is getting ready to do a similar audit. There is already anecdotal evidence of access problems around the state.

IRE did a national survey on press laws a few years, and Tennessee was the 6th-worst state. There are more than 200 exemptions in the Tennessee law, but only one quarter of those exemptions are actually codified into the Tennessee public records act; the rest are scattered among the Tennessee code and are difficult to find.

Private citizens have no recourse or anyplace to ask for help to determine which records are open or closed in Tennessee. The only appeal for a record denial is to sue for access.

Frank hopes the audit will document the problem and make it public as well as set priorities for how to fix the laws.

Like Tom, Frank also agrees that both reporters and public officials need better training about public records access.

Coalitions are a good way to create partnerships between public and private groups. They can also provide education, research and collect data, track violations and court cases and track public employee training.

A lively Q&A followed Tom and Frank's remarks. Questions included: other state's audits; the tension between personal and public information; records retention; and data fees.

-- Leigh Poitinger, San Jose Mercury News

Special Libraries Association 2004 Annual Conference
SLA News Division Home

Last Updated: 07/21/04