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Jon Elliston, investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press, explains the federal Freedom of Information Act to journalists, citizens and students at Appalachian State University last week. It was one of three workshops held around the region focusing on gaining access to local, state and federal public information. Ben Haines/Carolina Public Press

Carolina Public Press hosted its second annual Full Disclosure workshops last week at three universities in Western North Carolina.

Organized to mark the recent national Sunshine Week, an annual initiative promoting the importance of public access to government information, the workshops took place at UNC Asheville, Western Carolina University and Appalachian State University. Collectively, the sessions drew about 100 attendees.

“We believe that providing access to information is vital to an accountable government and an active electorate,” said Angie Newsome, executive director and editor of CPP, at one of the sessions. “We want to empower journalists, students and citizens on how to use the law, how to understand what public records are and how to get them.”

In addition to Newsome and Jon Elliston, CPP’s investigations and open government editor, presenters included Amanda Martin, general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association, who also teaches media law at UNC Chapel Hill and the Campbell University School of Law.

Attendees received a packet of documents including a link to specially selected online resources and other materials regarding public information and records requests. (Note: Those materials will remain available at that link until May 1, 2013.)

Amanda Martin, general counsel for the N.C. Press Association, answers questions about public information after workshops on local, state and federal information held by Carolina Public Press last week. Nearly 100 participants from across the region attended. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

Martin opened the workshops with a presentation on North Carolina’s public-records laws.

Some documents that are made or received by a public agency are public records, she noted, while others, such as personal tax returns, are not.

“You have those ends of the spectrum, and then there is a bunch of stuff in the middle that is essentially discretionary,” Martin said. “It can be given to you but it doesn’t have to be.”

Martin explained that most types of law-enforcement records are neither public nor confidential, according to the law. While law agencies are not required to actively make such documents publicly available, there is no law preventing them from disclosing the information.

Local-government gencies have been known to resist disclosing information in myriad ways, Martin said, such as claiming that a document is an unfinished draft and offering to release it at a later date, after revision. “That is not acceptable,” she said.

“They cannot say ‘that’s confidential’ or ‘that’s sensitive’ to remove documents from the public record,” Martin said. “If someone doesn’t want to give you a document, then they have to give you a statute citation” explaining why not.

Following Martin’s presentation on state law, Elliston shifted the discussion to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The FOIA, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, allows anyone to request the disclosure of documents generated by federal agencies. Unlike North Carolina’s law, which applies to the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the state government, the FOIA applies only to executive-branch agencies.

Elliston showed documents obtained through the FOIA that highlight local disclosures about federal domestic policies and national security matters.

For example, he noted, a space-research facility in Transylvania County that now operates in the open was originally constructed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to track satellites and later became a top-secret National Security Agency spy base.

For more than a decade, the NSA used the site to track Soviet and Cuban communications and conduct other international eavesdropping. After the Cold War ended, the facility passed briefly into the hands of the U.S. Forest Service before becoming the privately run Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.

“There’s that 10-year period that gnaws at me, where we didn’t know what the feds were doing in our neck of the woods, because they had a spy base here,” Elliston said. “It stands to reason that that’s probably a really good story, so how do we tell it? In part, through the FOIA.”

To round out the workshops, Newsome led the group in a collaborative discussion on how to craft public-records requests in North Carolina.

“This process is fraught with challenges, from figuring out who has the information to simply asking for that information, to silence on behalf of the person you’re asking, to getting some crazy response to your request, to sheer resistance,” she said.

Newsome stressed the importance of planning and encouraged requesters to think about the full scope of information they want to know and which agency they need to go through before proceeding with a public-information request. She noted that it is important to walk a fine line of being both courteous and firm, especially when people or agencies are resistant to providing information.

Newsome then demonstrated the process of drafting a sample public-records request. CPP will files those sample requests, which ask about a range of local issues, and share the results, she said.

Several journalists attended the workshops and shared stories of their public-records struggles and successes.

“I thought it was really well put-together,” said Jessica Webb, a reporter for The Highlander newspaper who attended the WCU workshop. “It was a nice opportunity to hear about what other reporters in the area are experiencing as far as access to public records.”

“I’m always starved for more information, more education, more professional development to help me do my job better,” said Anna Oakes, a reporter for the Watauga Democrat newspaper, at the ASU workshop.  “All three experts were very knowledgeable, and I really appreciate their time.”

The Full Disclosure workshops were co-sponsored by Appalachian State University’s Department of Communication, Community Newspapers, Inc. — Franklin Region, Mountain Xpress, the North Carolina Press Association, UNC Asheville’s Department of Mass Communication, Western Carolina University’s Department of Communication, and the contributions of Carolina Public Press’s supporters.

Ben Haines

Ben Haines is a reporting intern at Carolina Public Press.

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