Why freedom of information matters: Takeaways from the 2016 FOIA Fest

Panelists at FOIA Fest 2016 from left to right: Attorney Matt Topic, James Kalven of the Invisible Institute, independent journalist Brandon Smith and moderator Mick Dumke of the Chicago Sun Times. 

By Marc Filippino

Describe your ideal Saturday morning. If you said digging through public records and figuring out ways to challenge police for dashboard videos, then maybe next year consider going to FOIA Fest.

FOIA, an acronym for the Freedom of Information Act, is celebrating 50 years of aiding journalists, lawyers and, yes, everyday citizens fighting for access to documents that they have every right to see. On March 12 at Loyola University,  FOIA Fest hosted the keynote panel “How independent journalists, attorneys uncovered alleged police misconduct through FOIA.”

The panelist were Brandon Smith, an independent journalist who filed his own FOIA to get the Chicago Police Department to release the dashcam video that capture the death of black teenager Laquan McDonald; civil rights lawyer Matt Topic, who helped  Smith craft a lawsuit against CPD; and James Kalven of the Invisible Institute who also lobbied for the video to be released in December.

The  Laquan McDonald story made national headlines. After hearing Topic and Smith’s lawsuit, a judge ordered the Chicago Police department to release the video that showed McDonald being shot 16 times by former police officer Jason Van Dyke.

The panelists talked about their difficulties with filing FOIA and the pushback they get from FOIA offices, especially when trying to get the McDonald video.Their message was clear: FOIA offices need to be better.

They said many FOIA offices they come across are ineffective, partly because they are extremely underfunded and understaffed. Smith said if he had his way, he would want legislators to make FOIA offices the top priority in government budget so they can better serve the people.

Kalven agreed, but pointed out if government offices made these documents and videos public to begin with, there wouldn’t be a need for departments to process FOIA requests, minimizing costs and time dramatically.

But there are some things FOIA requesters can do to get the information they’re looking for. Topic said to always be aggressive. People working the FOIA office are always prone to push off deadlines and Topic said they will ask for extension after extension. Don’t let them get ask for more than two extensions, Topic recommended. Anything beyond that is excessive.

“In the Laquan McDonald case, they weren’t making any progress. They just kept asking for more time,” Topic said. “There was no point to agreeing to extensions.”

The panelists also encouraged FOIA fighters to be smart and thorough. Topic said one of the best things you can do is become an expert on the procedures and the policies of any office your asking for information from. That way you know the specifics of what you want when putting in a request.

And Smith suggested that when writing your FOIA request use the phrase, “documents suffice by to show…” By including that as a preface, your FOIA will be all encompassing of any record that is even remotely related to the information you might be looking for.

This was just a small part of FOIA Fest 2016, but the impact was enormous. Whether you write restaurant reviews or report on the Boston Red Sox, you should familiarize yourself with FOIA policies. At some point it could take your reporting to the next level.

Marc Filippino is the outgoing president of SPJ DePaul. Feel free to reach out to him at marcfilippino@gmail.com




Published by spjonadepaul

Official website for DePaul University's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.

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