Shop Talk panelist Jasmine Crighton said she recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with Western Illinois University. Crighton told the Shop Talk panel she filed the FOIA to obtain data her students might use for a story. She also filed the request so that she could talk about the FOIA process with her students. She was surprised by what happened next.
Crighton said a university representative emailed to ask what she planned to do with the data. Crighton was taken aback by the email because government agencies are not supposed to ask why someone is asking for information. They should either honor the request or deny it – and if they deny it, they should cite the section of the FOIA law that allows them to turn down the request.
Crighton said her request should have been a routine FOIA. Instead it turned into a different lesson she can share with her students.
Panelist Rich Egger said public documents should be available to the public. He said it shouldn’t matter what a reporter or other member of the public plans to do with the information.
Egger said journalists often file FOIA requests to obtain data they need for a story. He said while FOIA requests are sometimes used in investigative pieces, they’re also often used in general information stories.
Panelist Will Buss wondered if we’ve reached a point in society where people are automatically suspicious of journalists and educators who are simply trying to do their job. He also emphasized FOIA laws are not just for journalists – any citizen can file a request for public information.
Crighton said she eventually did receive the data she requested.
Jasmine Crighton is News Director of NEWS3 at Western Illinois University and Will Buss is the Director of Student Publications at WIU.