United States Project

RCFP updates its one-stop shop for public records law, reporter’s privilege

February 21, 2019

On January 4, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press published the latest edition of its Open Government Guide—an indispensable resource for journalists navigating the tricky waters of government access, and a go-to compendium of state-level sunshine laws for 30 years.

The guide, which is free and online, provides users with up-to-date statutory and case law governing access to public records and meetings in their state. A reporter seeking access to body camera footage in Kansas, for example, can click on that state’s guide and look under “Police Records” for a section devoted to police video, then hit a yellow “Compare” button to see whether or how other states handle disclosure.

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It addresses such digital-age questions as whether group texting constitutes a public meeting, and gives clear guidance on how to make requests and mount appeals. There’s also an updated Reporter’s Privilege Compendium, delineating state and federal protections against being compelled to testify or reveal confidential information. An updated Open Courts Compendium, focused on state and federal courts access, is coming this spring.

“It’s such an important guide for advocacy groups, for reporters who work with public records,” Danielle McLean, an investigative reporter for ThinkProgress who also chairs the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, says. “Just having a clear guide is extremely important to be able to move through this patchwork of laws, knowing when governments are trying to stall or hide information, knowing when to push back, how to push back, what’s available.”

In keeping with its mission of protecting the newsgathering rights of journalists, RCFP offers pro-bono legal services and runs a legal defense hotline. But its three online guides, particularly the Open Government Guide, are among its most widely used resources.

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“This literally tells you the law in every jurisdiction,” says Adam Marshall, a staff attorney at RCFP who helped devise the categories that make state-to-state comparisons easier. The guide, adds Marshall, enables journalists “to educate themselves, which is incredibly valuable.”

CJ Ciaramella, a journalist who covers criminal justice for Reason magazine, has used the Open Government Guide for years. In December he asked the Kentucky governor’s office for emails—including any from private accounts on private devices—related to a Facebook video in which Governor Matt Bevin lambasts the Louisville Courier-Journal and ProPublica. The office responded that private email accounts and devices were off-limits. Now Ciaramella is using the guide as he drafts an appeal. “To write an appeal you have to know state law and cite it, so the guide is incredibly helpful,” he says.

The new version has a cleaner overall presentation, and provides each state’s guide in full on a single page, which makes entries easier to search and print. “It’s easier to navigate,” Ciaramella says. “The old one was functional but this one is a little more streamlined.”

Though the new version looks simpler than any of the previous six editions, the update was a “huge amount of work”: a collaboration among committee staffers, content contributors and web developers that lasted for more than a year, according to RCFP staff attorney Sarah Matthews.

First, Marshall reshaped the categories, which numbered around 275 per state. Then the template and older entries went out to an army of attorneys across the states who specialize in open government law. The attorneys, who worked as volunteer authors, pored over statutes and case law as they updated entries, then went back and forth with Matthews for editing and fact-checking.

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Next came copying and pasting each individual category into a new WordPress platform, developed with the digital firm Alley, for every jurisdiction in the Open Government Guide as well as 60 state and federal circuit entries for the Reporter’s Privilege Compendium.

“I just roped in almost everybody in the office, because we had so many chapters, and divvied them up,” Matthews says. “It was all-hands-on-deck the week right before the holidays, just uploading chapters.”

RCFP kept the launch soft, so it could work out any bugs. For users, the biggest question so far has concerned what isn’t in the guide. Chapters for five states—Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—are not yet done, though users can link to PDFs from the previous guide from 2011 until they’re ready. Matthews says the decision was to get the guide out instead of holding it back for the last few updates.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how helpful this guide is, and we love that,” Matthews says. However, “we know how important it is because we really hear when we’re missing chapters.” Working with dozens of busy volunteer authors means a few are bound to miss deadlines, Matthews adds.

Anchorage attorney John McKay, who has contributed the guide’s Alaska information for every edition since its launch,turned in a 119,000-word entry for the latest edition. (The contribution, if printed, would total 191 pages.) He also wrote the Alaska sections of the privilege and courts compendiums.

“It’s basically what I do instead of a vacation,” says McKay. “I guess you could say it’s a labor of love, but it’s also a tangible way to not just say you favor freedom of the press but actually do something about it.”

Michael Grygiel says it took him more than 100 hours to compile the 73,000-word New York entry, even with help from two litigation associates. His firm, Greenberg Traurig, routinely represents news organizations seeking disclosure of government records. “We like to give back to organizations that serve many of our clients’ best interests,” says Grygiel, who adds that the work helps his firm stay abreast of legal developments. “RCFP is certainly an organization that has and continues to do that.”

Matthews, of the RCFP, is surveying authors about how often they’d be willing to update their contributions. The gap between the latest guide and its predecessor spanned eight years, the longest wait between editions. Matthews hopes to put all three guides on a staggered, fixed update cycle, so updates occur within three years.

McLean, of ThinkProgress, describes the updated guide as especially timely.

“There has been a growing hostility toward the media and some distress over that,”  McLean says. “As a journalist, one of the best ways to give point-blank evidence that something is true is by showing the physical documents to readers, quoting and citing the physical documents. You can’t obscure that, you can’t deny that. Having those public records tells the stories.”

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Alexa Capeloto is an associate professor of journalism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY. She has worked as a reporter and editor at the Detroit Free Press and The San Diego Union-Tribune, and now researches Freedom of Information laws and processes.