Open-records request letter generator a ‘treasure trove,’ student journalist says

Citizens’ rights to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened everyday, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on efforts by student journalists to access information and report in the sunshine.

NEW YORK – University of Binghamton students were livid in 2002 when they learned the only on-campus bank, which many disliked, had been selected by the university to serve them for another five years. Matt Chayes, then a staff writer at the student newspaper, wanted to help students understand the intricacies of the bank’s renewed contract with the university. There was just one problem: Chayes did not have the contract.

Chayes, who made contacts at the Student Press Law Center in high school and had since prowled the Center’s Web site, remembered a tool he found on the site that could help him acquire the information he needed: the state open-records law request letter generator, available to anyone seeking access to public records.

“It’s a treasure trove for any college journalist,” said Chayes, now a senior at Binghamton and editor in chief of Pipe Dream, the tri-weekly student newspaper. “You’re looking at the source material that most administrators probably wouldn’t want you to see. You can get pretty much anythingreally find out what’s happening, and get all sorts of information that you can then use to do articles and get new article ideas.”

The open-records letter generator was created by the SPLC in 1997 with the technical assistance of Gregg Leslie, then a staff attorney and Webmaster for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, according to Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the SPLC.

The letter generator, linked from on the home page of the SPLC’s Web site, asks the person seeking records to answer a series of questions, including which records they want to request, in which state the records are located and to whom the request will be sent.

Each year since it was established, the letter generator has been used thousands of times. Use of the generator hit an all-time high in 2001, when the generator was used 12,697 times. This year to date, the generator has been used more than 2,200 times, and in the past 12 months, more than 11,500 times. Although the SPLC receives a message each time the letter generator is used, the contents are never seen or stored by the SPLC.

“It’s amazing-everyone uses it,” said Hiestand. “We [created it] for student journalists. But now I know that the site has been linked to from a number of other sites that really have nothing to do with student journalism.”

The SPLC maintains databases that store information about the citations to the state open-records laws, the time period for compliance and the penalty provisions if open-records requests are not met. After information is inserted in the letter generator, a completed letter appears almost immediately. The letter can be copied and pasted onto any letterhead.

“This shows that it’s a piece of cake and there’s no reason why every journalist in the country ought not to be regularly using freedom of information requests when that becomes necessary to do their jobs,” Hiestand said.

SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said it is important for students to undertand that a formal written request is seldom the first step in seeking public records.

“A polite verbal request is typically your best starting point,” he said. “Save the written letters-and especially a mention of penalties-for when your verbal request has been denied. That’s when you let them know that you know your rights and you’re serious about defending them.”

Since his first experience with the letter generator in 2002, Chayes has become a frequent user, and has now created his own, less-formal letter to hand to officials at his university when requesting records. He has used the letter generator and his version of the letter to access health reports, contracts, internal memoranda, accident reports and police reports.

“A lot of the requests have been denied either actively or constructively,” said Chayes, a political science major who has worked for Pipe Dream for three years. “If the denial has no merit, I’ll appeal, and if the denial has merit, I won’t.”

Chayes was finally successful on March 1, 2005, the day he won what had seemed to be a losing yearlong battle to access evaluation forms for every faculty member for the past few semesters. The university counsel, Barbara Westbrook, first denied the request on a technicality, Chayes said, and then denied the request again on another technicality when he refiled.

“With the help of [the SPLC], I appealed internally because I had a professional relationship with [Westbrook],” Chayes said. “Basically I appealed only to her, and she denied it again, and then I tried to appeal to the state, and they said I missed an appeal because I appealed only to her. Then I filed the same request again in November, and it got denied.”

In response to this, Adam Goldstein, the SPLC’s new media legal fellow, and the New York State Committee on Open Government wrote letters to Westbrook saying the denials were illegal. Eventually, Chayes said, Westbrook accepted the request and said the evaluations would be available by March. On March 1, Chayes was able to access the documents.

“Freedom of information laws can tend to be complicated,” he said, suggesting all student journalists take advantage of the generator’s accessibility. “And I think the letter generator can help students who are unfamiliar with writing legal documents or writing persuasive legal prose.”

If students are denied access to public records, Chayes suggests, they should use their campus’ student newspaper as a tool.

“It can embarrass administrations into complying,” he said. “Also, put up a fight-don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer. If they say no, use the resources you have.”

-By Elisabeth Salemme

Read previous Sunshine Week coverage.