Guide to negotiating state Sunshine laws
By The Associated Press
In recognition of Sunshine Week, following is a guide to understanding state Sunshine laws, statutes that deal
with open government — how you can use them and what to do if you hit
The first thing to remember is that you have a right to know.
Government documents — budgets, environmental studies, contracts — are yours to
see. The same goes for meetings of elected bodies. If your town board or city
council is meeting, you are allowed to sit and listen.
There are exemptions — situations in which documents or meetings can be
closed — such as when security issues or private personnel matters are involved.
But for the most part, open government laws guarantee that you're entitled to
know what your government is doing.
Let's say you want a specific piece of information. Maybe a town
budget or a list of city council members' salaries, for instance.
The simplest way to get it is to ask for it, which often involves going to
the relevant government office and orally making your request.
If the officials you're dealing with turn you down, you can politely remind
them of your state's Sunshine law and cite its statute number. Sometimes that's
enough to make them more cooperative.
Let's say officials still say no. Then what? Then you can make a
formal, written request for what you want: Cite the law, what information you
seek and, if your state has a time-limit to answer you, remind your officials
that they only have so many days to respond in writing. Make sure to keep copies
of or notes on every request you make.
Now if officials still say no, they must give a reason. If you don't believe
those reasons fit the exemptions in the sunshine law, you've still got options.
But what path you choose depends on the state where you live.
In some places, such as Hawaii and Connecticut, there are state agencies that
will consider your complaint and possibly investigate it. Other states rely, at
least in part, on the attorney general's office. Elsewhere, you'll have to
contact your local county prosecutor or hire your own lawyer to challenge the
Does all this sound intimidating? Don't worry, there's help
Many states have nongovernment resources such as university associations for
freedom of information, coalitions for open government and press groups that can
help you compose a request for information. A list of such groups can be found at
the Society of Professional Journalists.
For details on your state laws, there are other Web sites that are helpful.
The Freedom of Information
Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press.
The Marion Brechner Citizen Access
For requests of the federal government, a good resource is the National Security
Archive. It has details on the law, its history, exemptions and sample
letters to send to federal agencies.
Also see the First Amendment Center's "How to file an FOIA request."
One warning: Fighting for your rights can be costly. Government
agencies, whether federal, state or local, may ask you to pay fees to cover the
costs of retrieving or copying records. In states where you are left to pursue
the case on your own, legal fees can be quite high. Some states allow for the
recovery of legal fees if you win, but legal obstacles and precedent often make
On Sunshine laws, governments talk loudly; stick rarely used
Though records, meetings are presumed open, state laws are sporadically enforced, penalties for agencies not complying are mild. 03.11.07
Study: Feds slow in putting records on Web
Benefits of going online with public information include big cost-savings for government. 03.13.07
Sunshine Week '07 at a glance
How to file an FOIA request
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