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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Freedom of Information is for Everyone

By Chris Eudaily
Jennifer Peebles, Deputy Editor at Texas Watchdog said everyone needs to understand that the government works for them, and that citizens are active shareholders in the government.

"We all get to go to the shareholders meeting every year," said Peebles, who then added that as shareholders, we have the right to say: "I don't like the way the CEO is doing his job and I want his ass fired!"




Peebles emphasized that the real power in freedom of information laws is not just for journalists, but for citizens as well.

She said that as a parent, you can easily use the freedom of information laws to find out what is happening in your child's school, and the the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas puts on regular seminars, should citizens want to find out how the laws work.



Peebles said that with the massive cuts in staff at newspapers across the country, giving existing reporters less time for digging and investigating, "there are fewer eye balls on the government," which makes it increasingly important to fact check quotes and other relevant information.

Fact-checking does come at a price, and the law also provides for the reasonable application of these costs - in Texas it's ten cents a page.

"The more you ask for- not only does it take more time - the more they get to charge you," said Peebles about the volume/cost relationship. But she added that you must also be wary of high estimates.

Peebles told of a time when she was working at a newspaper in Nashville, Tenn., and her newspaper requested the records from the Nashville Power Company. The power company sent them a $98,000 bill - to which she advised for reporters to always ask how an agency arrived at an estimate.

It turned out that the power company was trying to charge the paper postage for mailing out notification letters to the power company's customers informing them that their records were being released. Agencies are only allowed to charge for actual costs.

Peebles said that the newspaper filed a lawsuit, which they won, and the total ended up coming down to "I think $2,000."

High costs are not the only thing for reporters to worry about, Peebles said that sometimes you will end up with "a room full" of records relevant to your request, so you will have to also be prepared to alter your strategy to find out if you want to go through everything.

She said that sometimes looking through months of the mayor's emails may not be practical, so to start with one month and see if there is anything there, and if everything is "boring," then to just move on to something else.

Freedom of information laws give citizens access to virtually everything, unless there is an exemption for that particular piece of information. Peebles said that the federal freedom of information laws tend to have much broader exemptions, but that a lot of information is still open.

As the occupy protests sweep the globe and people demand more transparency from their governments and financial institutions, an informed citizenry is vital to the health of a democracy.

And an informed citizenry stems from the freedom of information.

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