CMLP Legal Guide: Accessing Government Info

    by David Ardia
    April 2, 2008

    Back in January, the Citizen Media Law Project began rolling out its Citizen Media Legal Guide. So far, we’ve published major sections of the guide covering Forming a Business and Getting Online, Dealing with Online Legal Risks, and Newsgathering and Privacy. This week we began rolling out the section on Access to Government Information,
    which highlights the extensive amount of information available through
    government sources and explains how both traditional and
    non-traditional journalists can use various public access laws to
    gather and make effective use of this information.

    To whet your appetite, I’ve pasted the first part of the overview to this new section below:


    Access to Government Information


    This section of the legal guide outlines the wide-array of
    information available to you from government sources. These sources
    range from your local city council all the way up to the largest
    agencies in the federal government. In fact, you might be quite
    surprised at how much information is available to you. And the best
    part is that you generally don’t need to hire a lawyer or file any
    complicated forms — you can access most of this information simply by
    showing up or filing a relatively simple request. Moreover, you don’t
    need to be a professional journalist to share what you find with others
    who are interested in these issues; with nothing more than an Internet
    connection, you can make the information available to anyone in the
    world. For an impressive example of how some people are using the power
    of new information technologies in conjunction with government
    information, check out Adrian Holovaty’s Chicagocrime.org, a browsable database of crimes reported in Chicago.

    Regardless of what you publish online, it is likely that at
    least one (if not many) of the information sources we discuss in this
    section will be valuable to you. For example, you might want to find
    out whether the drinking water coming out of your faucet contains
    pollutants (information that is likely contained in documents held by
    the Environmental Protection Agency or one of its state counterparts).
    Perhaps you’d like to know more about how your local school board makes
    decisions (information that you can get by attending school board
    meetings). Or perhaps you are concerned that a real estate developer
    may have been sued for fraud (information that is available by visiting
    the courthouse in person or accessing the court’s electronic docketing

    Information from these government sources will be especially
    useful to you if you want to take your publishing activities beyond
    merely commenting on material posted by others. These sources can help
    you move into original reporting and enable you to comment in an
    informed fashion on local and national debates. You might even do a
    periodic post or column on subjects of particular interest to your
    website or blog. For example, the Gotham Gazette, an independent news site that covers “New York City News and Policy,” has an entire section focusing on city government, which is largely based on meetings of the New York City Council.

    We should point out, however, that the information you gather
    from these government sources doesn’t have to be limited to the actions
    of the government itself. Government bodies collect extensive
    information on individuals, corporations, and other organizations. Much
    of this information is available to the public. You just have to know
    where to look.

    The first thing you will need to consider is which government
    entity likely has the information you are seeking. Public access to
    government information extends to a broad range of government sources,
    including federal and state agencies, Congress and state legislatures,
    government boards and committees, and the courts. In fact, it might be
    the case that the information you are interested in is located in more
    than one place. A little advanced research on your part can go a long
    way when dealing with the government. Because different laws apply to
    different government entities, you will want to review each section of
    this guide that might apply to your situation. If you are not sure
    whether the information you seek is associated with a federal, state,
    or local government body, refer to the page on Federal, State, and Local Government Bodies for some helpful information.

    It is also worth bearing in mind that laws granting access to
    government information are only one of many important fact-finding
    tools in your information gathering toolbox. These laws can be very
    powerful, but their scope is limited to records and information
    available through government sources. For a broad overview of how you
    can investigate a full range of actors, including government,
    individuals, and corporations, see the Newsgathering section of this guide and check out the Center for Investigative Reporting’s entertaining and inspirational guide, Raising Hell: A Citizens Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation.

    * * *

    If you are interested in reading more, you will find the rest of this overview in the Legal Guide.

    Tagged: cmlp government information legal guide newsgathering

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