Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Most state legislatures deny open records requests, claiming exemption from laws, says AP study

Most state legislatures deny open records requests, claiming they are legally exempt from doing so, according to a study by The Associated Press, which sent requests to more than 170 of the top Republican and Democratic legislatures in each state asking for emails and daily schedules, David Lieb reports for AP. "Some lawmakers claimed 'legislative immunity' from the public-records laws that apply to most state and local officials. Others said secrecy was essential to the deliberative process of making laws. And some feared that releasing the records could invade the privacy of citizens, creating a 'chilling effect' on the right of people to petition their government."

"All legislatures allow people to watch and listen to their debates," Lieb writes. "But an AP review of open-government policies found that many state legislatures allow closed-door caucus meetings in which a majority of lawmakers discuss policy positions before public debates. Others have restrictions on taking photos and videos of legislative proceedings. In some places, lawmakers have no obligation to disclose financial information that could reveal conflicts of interest."

"Legislators possess the power to change that but are sometimes reluctant to act," Lieb writes. "That mirrors the way things work in Washington. Congress exempted itself when it passed the national Freedom of Information Act 50 years ago. The president and his immediate staff also are exempt. By contrast, many governors are subject to state sunshine laws." Charles Davis, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and a former executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said requirements passed by lawmakers present "a stunning contradiction." He told Lieb, “I have just always found it astonishing that they would put those requirements on public officials throughout government and exempt themselves at the same time."

Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press runs through through Saturday, while National Freedom of Information Day is today, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment. The Sunshine Week site provides plenty of tools, including opinion columns, editorial cartoons, Sunshine Week logos and icons, a sample proclamation for state and local governments, the Schools and Colleges page for students and educators and a series of open government questions to ask candidates running for federal positions.

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