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Guide to negotiating state Sunshine laws

By The Associated Press
03.12.07

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 obstacles.

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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.

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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.

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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 decision.

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Does all this sound intimidating? Don't worry, there's help available.

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. They include:

  • The Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

  • The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

  • The Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project.

    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."

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    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 that difficult.


  • Related

    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

    Analysis/Commentary summary page
    View the latest analysis and commentary throughout the First Amendment Center Online.



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