In honor of Sunshine Week, an annual homage to freedom of official information which is celebrated nationwide, Carolina Public Press held a series of public-record events to teach the importance of “Full Disclosure.”
The workshops, which were held at Western Carolina University and at University of North Carolina-Asheville, were designed to teach the general public about the information that’s available to anyone, if you only know where to look and how to ask.
In total, about 45 people attended the workshops and of those 45, nine radio, TV, magazine, weekly, daily and online media organizations from across Western North Carolina were represented, along with students and faculty from the two universities.
Carolina Public Press (CPP) is a nonprofit media project dedicated to in-depth, investigative and independent reporting on the overlooked and under-reported people, places and issues facing the 17 westernmost counties of North Carolina. “We focus on producing eye-opening, thought-provoking, change-making journalism and offering access to information at carolinapublicpress.org and through trainings, events and community conversations,” said Angie Newsome, founder and editor of Carolina Public Press. “We really believe that access to public information is a cornerstone of in-depth and investigative reporting. We also believe that public information should be shared and published — we do this regularly on our site — and the more people who have access to information, the better.”
Newsome explained that although learning about full disclosure involving government records is crucial throughout the year, Sunshine Week allows special attention to be brought to the subject. “I personally think knowing about these laws is a yearlong event. There’s so much to learn and apply,” said Newsome. “But Sunshine Week gives us way to connect with other people and media organizations who are planning events and activities during the week. It brings the importance of these laws to the forefront of our minds and conversations instead of being something we know and use every day but rarely talk about.”
According to Newsome, part of CPP’s mission is to “produce great journalism and to pump up access to information,” she said. “We wanted to share our experience and expertise in getting that information with journalists, students and community members across the region.”
The workshops included trainers Charles Coble and Jon Elliston. Coble is an attorney with the Raleigh-based law firm, Brooks Pierce. He specializes in communications and media law, primarily in representing broadcast, print and other media clients in First Amendment and other media litigation. “We were really fortunate to host Charles Coble, a leading media law attorney from one of the state’s largest media law firms, who is an expert on the North Carolina law,” said Newsome.
During Coble’s presentation, he spoke to attendees about the importance of the Public Records Act and gave insight into actual court cases in which he defended clients against libel, defamation and privacy claims.
The North Carolina Public Records Law was designed to guarantee that the public has access to records of government bodies in North Carolina. The first statute dealing with public documents in the state was passed in 1935.
According to Coble, “public record” includes all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material; regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivision.
The definition of a public record is crucial when defending the clients, because as technology evolves, so do the means in which the government communicates while dealing with public business, explained Coble.
One commonly misunderstood element of the Public Records Act is centered around email communications. According to Coble, one trouble spot of the law is created when a government official uses a personal email account to discuss official business. Coble explained that although a government may use a private email account, if the email is used to discuss anything pertaining to official government business, it is subject to the Public Records Act.
According to Newsome, the information presented in the workshop is as critically important to media outlets as it is to citizens. “Journalists use the state and federal laws almost daily, some without even knowing it,” said Newsome. “Our ability to ask elected officials and agencies rests on the openness mandated by these laws. Reporting on the plane crash, for example, shows how important these laws are. Everything from accident reports to investigation updates are available to us because of these public records laws. Having information about what our public officials and agencies are doing is essential to a working democracy.”
Workshop trainer Jon Elliston is an Asheville-based writer and former managing editor of the Mountain Xpress. Elliston is also a former staff writer for the Durham Independent Weekly, and has written about a wide array of topics spanning from history, culture and politics for the Nation, Popular Communications, U.s. News & World Report and WNC magazine. Through his writing, Elliston has been recognized with awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Society of Proessional Journalists and the North Carolina Press Association. He is currently working on a book about a Western North Carolina integrated sumer camp that was attacked by a local mob and run out of the state in 1963. Elliston's book-in-progress was supported by a research fellowship from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.
Elliston’s portion of the presentation focuses on the importance of understanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Elliston gave first-hand tips on how to file a FOIA request in order to be as effective and efficient as possible.
FOIA is a federal freedom of information law that was originally enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966. The law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of information and documents controlled by the United States government and is available to the general public.
According to Elliston, a FOIA request is only the beginning of a what can potentially be a long process. He explained that to save time, effort and money, those seeking information through FOIA should do research first to be certain that the information is not already available through some sort of public domain. “With FOIA requests becoming more and more common, several organizations have places FOIA tabs on their websites with frequently requested materials readily available,” said Elliston.
To reduce the vagueness in a request which can often lead unnecessary complications, Elliston advised workshop trainees to target a focal point for information being requested because the more specific a request, the quicker the information can be retrieved.
Elliston also advised those interested in submitting a FOIA request to keep a paper trail and to follow up on the request. Often times large government agencies will take an extended period of time to meet a request so by keeping personal records it will be easier to engage the responser later on if clarity is needed to expedite a request.
Newsome solicited evaluations from workshop attendees in order to best assess what information was viewed as most helpful. According to Newsome, one thing several attendees stated that they learned was the difference between the government's FOIA and the state's Public Record Laws. “Some said they didn't realize that there are actually two sets of open records laws – one for North Carolina that guides information on the local and state level, and one for the federal government that guides federal agencies,” she said.