FOIA-like Pursuits

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in February 2020

400 words / 2 min.
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Pursuing “freedom of information” requests to, and responses from, state governments.

Please note that this post is from 2020. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

In a bid to improve government transparency and empower citizens, I started a new pandemic hobby a few months ago: requesting public information from state governments using their own FOIA-like laws, known under various names: public-records acts, public-information acts, open-records acts, “sunshine” laws, freedom-of-information laws (FOIL), and more.

While I also do this for work in a more targeted, litigation-focused way, I intend to make these personal FOIA-like requests, and the government responses, public, currently via a GitHub repository: krisnelson/FOIA.

In my personal work, I am choosing to focus on state and local government entities in the United States as these are critical to democracy and, with the loss of many local media outlets, often missed in big, nationwide transparency efforts.

Requests So Far

So far, I’ve made requests of government entities in California and Texas, with plans to expand to other states going forward.

I’ve sought information from the San Diego County Sheriff and several small cities in San Diego County, looking for information on a new “federated video system” to assist with police surveillance.

I’ve also made requests of Collin College in Texas, looking for information on reported targeting of faculty for their political speech and then, later, targeting efforts by faculty to advocate for improved COVID policies.

California versus Texas

Already there is a clear difference between my efforts in California and in Texas:

I’ve yet to be charged any fees in California, nor have I received any responses indicating a desire to obstruct my requests for public records. Records have been delivered promptly and without issue.

In contrast, Collin College appealed to the Texas Attorney General in an effort to deny one of my requests, and other similar ones from FIRE (I objected, FIRE objected and Collin College lost.) Then, to deliver the public information they had sought to withhold, they demanded $60 in payment. A second batch of requests resulted in a demand that I “clarify and/or narrow” my requests, and a pre-emptive decision that any release of responsive public information would not be “in the public’s interest.”

What Next?

As I ponder an appropriate response to Collin College—and also consider what entity in what state to target next—I am pondering how best to fund these records requests for public information in states like Texas that are desperately in need of transparency.

So, stay tuned! We shall see what’s next.