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Getting Past “No” when government pushes back

By Kathryn Sharkey

“How many people in here have filed federal information requests … and how many of you have been told no?”

The room, during the panel “Getting past ‘No’ when government pushes back” on Friday of the IRE Conference, was filled with raised hands and chuckles as Jack Gillum from the Associated Press got a feel for the room and said, “oh good, then this is the place for you.”

Gillum, Chicago Tribune reporter David Jackson and Davis Wright Tremaine attorney Angela Galloway, a former reporter, said the best way to get your Freedom of Information Act request seen and approved came down to three things:

  • Be specific
  • Follow up
  • Be nice.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been crawling up under the soap box we said not to get on [when you’re angry because a FOIA request has been denied],” Gillum said. “But, being nice really does go a long way.”

All three presenters stressed the importance of making sure the request ends up with the right person at the right agency by making calls and sending emails, and keeping a record of those conversations. Jackson said the call log and emails can be used in the future if the agency continues to resist releasing the documents. If it comes to an appeal, Jackson said you can then send a FOIA request for the emails sent out by the officials or agencies about the information you’re seeking. Also, resolve cost issues upfront to avoid delays and extra frustration, so you know how to send in a fee waiver request, Jackson said.

Gillum said a good tip is to request the information be released on a “rolling basis” to expedite the process instead of waiting for the agency to compile all of the information, which may be expansive and in many different places or formats.

All of the presenters said to try everything possible before filing an appeal or a lawsuit as most of the time with the right sources, you can get the information even without a FOIA request.

Galloway said good resources include the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the RCFP’s open government guide, and the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Kathryn Sharkey is a journalist and graduate of Southern Methodist University

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