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Freedom of Information law in Texas

Freedom of Information law in Texas

This presentation overviews the open meetings and open records of Texas' Public Information Law.


  1. “We want it chunky” • The Oklahoma Daily requested Jack

    White’s contract to perform at OU • Performance cost $80,000, but the rest of the contract was beautiful
  2. FOI and the Right to Know • “The Right to

    Know” – what, and by whom? • No real constitutional right to know in First Amendment • Federal Freedom of Information Act (1966), E-FOIA (1996) • “Sunshine laws” in every state today
  3. Federal FOIA • Requires federal agencies to make records available

    for inspection and copying – Does not apply to Congress, president – Presumed open? Presumed closed? • Unless it falls under one of nine exemptions – Exemptions are narrow & to be strictly construed (Milner v. Dept. of Navy, 2011)
  4. FOIA Exemptions • Agency MAY (not must) withhold for three

    major reasons: – National security (Exemption 1) – Personal (but not corporate: FCC v. AT&T, 2011) privacy (Ex. 6) – Law enforcement records (Exemption 7) • Also: Administrative documents, memoranda, other laws, trade secrets, financial institutions, geophysical data
  5. Some situations • FOIA the White House beer recipe? •

    Photos from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden? • Rap sheet of mobster Charles Medico? • Details of the NROL Octopus logo? • ESPN requests athletic department emails from Ohio State? (under Ohio FOI law)
  6. Texas PIA • Texas Government Code § 552 • Policy:

    Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.
  7. Definitions • Covers any media for storing information • Applies

    to “government bodies” – city, county, school board, state (but not judiciary) • Main exceptions: law enforcement records, personnel information, bidding on contracts, legal advice
  8. Step 1: Get in the FOI habit • Developing “a

    document state of mind” • Remember who the government works for and why we have FOI laws • You are doing your job and the public’s business • Find an FOI Friend – TCCJ, FOIFT, local SPJ chapter – Network, brainstorm, find ideas that have worked elsewhere – Make a Twitter list: @SunshineReview, @MuckRock, @TxFOIFT, @DavisCN, @RCFP, @JoelCampbell
  9. Step 2: become an expert • Keep a copy of

    the law handy • Get the AG handbooks (which are free) and read them • Expect the exceptions (real or made up) that records custodians will throw at you • Always ask how that exception applies, why you can’t have that record today, what parts don’t need to be redacted
  10. Step 3: learn about records • How are documents kept?

    Who keeps them? Where and how? • Identify your records custodians, introduce yourself, get to know them • Find out where documents are created and where they go to die • Ask for a list of records and documents that agency/body keeps • Ask for an FOI log – who is filing requests and what are they asking for?
  11. Step 4: make good requests • Do your homework –

    know who keeps what records, find out what the record is called, be specific • Ask verbally first – Be polite, show respect, build relationships, understand that it is more work for them • Write a good, specific letter – Choose a tone – honey or vinegar?
  12. Step 5: overcoming denials • Common denials – No response

    – Your request is overly broad – That record doesn’t exist – We’ll get back to you – Part is covered by exemption, so you can’t have any of it – You can have it…for $6 billion • Make the denial the story • Seek administrative options (appeal, AG)
  13. Meetings • Public meetings also required to be open to

    public access – Federal Sunshine Act (1976) – Texas Open Meetings Act (Tex. Gov’t Code § 551) • In general, must give 24 hours public notice before meetings • Exceptions: consultation with lawyers, personnel discussions, closed $ bids