Americans should be better informed about freedom of information laws, and what public records are.
A few weeks ago, the Owl and Doaneline ran an article about a student who is currently facing three felony charges. Many students expressed they felt this was a violation of the student’s privacy. This surprised me. Sure, we don’t usually print crime stories, either because there are few of them, the crime is too minor or because we have failed to recognize them, but everything in the article was public record. In fact, it was pretty much just a re-write of court documents.
So I wondered why people were upset. Then, I remembered the time my freshman roommate was awed when I brought a police report back to the dorm for an article I was working on. I realized though that while journalism majors have to learn about public records, most students don’t. A class on public records and freedom of information laws probably doesn’t fit into the curriculum of music or biology programs. That doesn’t mean the information is unimportant though.
Democracy is built on the transparency. The Washington Post’s slogan is “Democracy dies in darkness.” It shouldn’t just be lawyers and journalists who know how what information is public record. Everyone should be confident going down to the police station and asking for the day’s crime log. After all, that’s your right as an American citizen.
This is nothing new. At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1967. In Nebraska, any document or file, physical or digital, that belongs to the State or its subdivision, like school boards or specific departments, is public record.
There are some exceptions to public records laws. Some of these are:
· Personal information on students
· Medical records
· Unpublished academic or scientific research
· Law enforcement records relating to cases under investigation
· Personal records, other than salaries, of government employees
· Phone calls and correspondences of state senators
To see the complete list of exemptions and read Nebraska’s public records law go to the Attorney General’s website.
If you know a document is public record and the holder is reluctant to share it with you, fill out a FOIA request. This is a letter addressed to the documents holder requesting the document and citing the relevant laws that make it public record. The easiest way to write a FOIA request is to use the Student Press Law Center’s letter generator. You just have to plug in your state, the record you want and who holds it. After you submit a written request, the record holder has four business days to get it to you or reply with a denial stating the records exemption.
Most people probably don’t find open records as exciting as I do, but knowing the laws, and your rights, is important. If someone couldn’t ask for a police report, then how would people know what their law enforcers are actually up to? If you don’t know what someone is being charged with, then how could you defend him/her? Without the transparency that open record laws allow, it would be impossible to maintain a democratic society.