The Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project will allow citizens and public officials to better understand and evaluate citizen access to local and state government information in all 50 states.
The project director is Bill Chamberlin, Joseph L. Brechner Eminent Scholar of Mass Communications and founding director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, at the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.
The MBCAP will summarize the open meetings and open records laws of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, rank them, and put the comparisons on the Internet, with appropriate citations. The MBCAP Web site will also contain background information on the project and state laws, contacts for more information, and direct links to state access laws. MBCAP staff members will use the information gathered for stories for the mass media, trade journal articles, and conferences and seminars.
Marion Brechner, the president of Brechner Management Company, which owns television and radio stations in Maryland, Kansas and Ohio, has provided most of the funding for the project by establishing an endowment with a gift of $600,000. The college anticipates a match to these funds of $420,000 from the state of Florida. It will take approximately four years for full funding to be in place. Meanwhile, the project will be funded through a one-time $275,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. The initial project budget will be about $50,000 a year.
- To increase the awareness and understanding of public officials and the general public about issues related to access to government information.
- To provide a database of useful comparative information for those interested in access issues, including citizens, legislators, executive branch officials, freedom of information activists, journalists, students and scholars.
- To change attitudes about the importance of access to public information.
- FOI activists needing information for their work.
- Public officials seeking information on access laws, either for reviewing the laws
that control their behavior or comparing their laws to the laws of other states.
- Citizens seeking information about the quality of their state’s access law.
- Journalists seeking background or comparative information.
- Scholars seeking research information.
- Citizens seeking to know how they can use their state’s law.
The project staff hopes to be able to rate each state’s open meetings laws and open records laws overall by 2004. Beginning in the Winter 2000, we began rating states on individual provisions of the access laws and posting related resource information.
The work begins with legal research of the individual statutory provisions controlling open meetings and open records in the 50 states, regardless of where the provisions are found in a state’s statutory compilations.
These statutes will be catalogued and analyzed within the context of state appellate court decisions. Some states also have related constitutional provisions or an independent access decision-making authority producing precedent-setting opinions.
The major research categories for records will be policy directives, definitions, processing requirements, agencies affected, fees, exemptions, and remedies. A similar list will be developed for open meetings.
The research will be produced by independent scholars volunteering to contribute to the project and graduate students with a legal research background, under close supervision of the project director. MBCAP graduate assistants will then organize the research for the database, for the Web, and for rating by a Sunshine Advisory Board. The project staff members will organize the statutory provisions and case law around the materials found in the laws themselves rather than searching for material to meet predetermined categories.
The statutory provisions will be organized in multiple levels, both for the ratings and for viewing on the web page, in order to recognize broad categories and subcategories. For example, the database for open records will include a category of exemptions, which will include the subcategory of privacy, which will include subcategories such as names and addresses.
Each state law access provision will be rated by the MBCAP Sunshine Advisory Board on a seven-point scale, including completely open, mostly open, somewhat open, neutral, somewhat closed, mostly closed and completely closed. The advisory board has decided that laws will be weighted so that constitutions and Supreme Court opinions receive more recognition than opinions of lower courts, state commissions, and attorneys general. The advisory board ratings will be coded by MBCAP graduate assistants, using an average of the ratings provided.
The Sunshine Advisory Board, named by the MBCAP project chair, includes Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, Sandra Davidson of the University of Missouri, Bob Freeman of the New York State Committee on Open Government, Harry Hammitt of Access Reports, Frosty Landon of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Ian Marquand of the Society of Professional Journalists, Tony Mauro of the American Lawyer, Dick Schmidt of Cohn and Marks, Carole Wagner Vallianos of the California law office of Carole Wagner Vallianos, John Watkins of the University of Arkansas School of Law, and Susan Woodford of Common Cause Texas.
The Web page will be interactive, driven by user choice. It will allow for easy navigation, yet provide an effective environment for detailed research.
Users will be able to enter the database either through a list of the states or a list of legal access provisions. The project will offer a user-friendly summary of each state’s legal provisions, the rating given for the selected state’s statute and for the state overall (combining statute and case law), and links to appropriate statutes and case law (links to all state constitutions and statutes already are available on the web page). Users also will be able to see how a state’s rating compares to the ratings of all other states. Users will be able to link to a description of the most open and least open provisions, and the kinds of statutory language used most often by the states.
Users will be able to find bibliographies of state access laws, lists of freedom of information contacts, links to other freedom-of-information Web resources, and eventually pro/con discussions of state access issues. The Web page will provide users with explanations of the project, the ratings system, and the advisory board. The page also will provide access to the names of people affiliated with the project, and appropriate e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
The project staff is finishing the design of the Web page and beginning to load data into the database. It is continually gathering legal information and putting it in forms that can be reviewed by the advisory board and seen on the Web. The research methodology is almost complete and the advisory board will soon rate its first data.