Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Open Records Guides Come in Assorted Formats

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Open Records Guides Come in Assorted Formats

Article excerpt

Convenience is the newest advantage of Tapping Officials' Secrets, a journalists' guide through the open meetings and open records laws in the 50 states and the District of Columbia published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The third edition of the compendium, released July 4, is available for the first time in a single volume, on CD-ROM, and at the Reporters Committee's Web site (http://www.rcfp.org/rcfp).

"It's an enormous undertaking, because it requires the contributions of 51 contributors," said Jane E. Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee. The 51 guides, for each state and District of Columbia, were prepared pro bono by lawyers who specialize in open government law.

Kirtley said the guide is written to be understandable for journalists but still a comprehensive guide for lawyers. Following a standard outline, each guide includes the text of all relevant statutes and information on what records and meetings fall under the open government laws.

The guides describe exemptions to the laws as interpreted by state courts and attorneys general, and include a sample request letter and instructions on how to acquire documents, attend government meetings, and appeal denials of access.

Accessibility to electronically stored documents has become a major issue in the years since the first edition was released in 1989. Kirtley said information on how to acquire such documents is included in the 1997 edition.

Open-records access is hardly uniform across the country, Kirtley said. Although wary of making generalizations, "the farther west of the Mississippi, the better it gets," she said.

There have been chronic problems with access in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, she said, although the latter state is changing its laws. Florida has been held up as an exemplar, but some have complained to the Reporters Committee that the state has been backsliding. …

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