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Study: Average Americans More Likely to be Shut Out of Government Records Process

Journalists, average Americans, and others seeking government records in the public interest are more likely to be denied information than for-profit requesters, according to a new study titled “Tale of two requesters: How public records law experiences differ by requester types,” co-authored by David Cuillier, director of the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida. The study was published in March in the peer-reviewed journal Journalism.

Cuillier and co-author A. Jay Wagner of Marquette University surveyed 330 people across the United States who have requested public records from the government through state and federal freedom of information laws.

They compared two different kinds of requesters: Those seeking information in the public interest, such as journalists, researchers, and nonprofit organizations, and those seeking information for commercial purposes, such as lawyers and businesses that profit from information. The study found that:

  • Commercial requesters were more likely to receive what they ask for, compared to those seeking records in the public interest, such as journalists, researchers and average Americans.
  • Commercial requesters were more likely to sue the government for records, while public-interest requesters are left with few avenues to challenge record denials.
  • Those seeking government records in the public interest are much less likely to feel that freedom of information laws positively impact government and individuals’ everyday lives.

“These findings indicate significant barriers for average people in acquiring the information they need to improve their communities and hold government accountable,” Cuillier said. “Information access should be available to everyone, not just companies and those who have the money to sue. That’s the whole point of public record laws – to inform Americans so they can better self-govern, maintaining a strong democracy and republic.”

Cuillier and Wagner provide several recommendations for improving the process, including proactive release of records for commonly requested records and establishment of alternative dispute resolution systems so citizens don’t have to hire a lawyer to exercise their right to know.

Posted: April 16, 2024
Category: Brechner News
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