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Conduct policy is no good for press or public

Imagine our disbelief if a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch asked U.S. Representative Randy Forbes for comments on the debt ceiling crisis, only to be told that Mr. Forbes couldn't say anything until he talked to Rep. John Boehner first.

Imagine our outrage if someone from the Midlothian Exchange asked Virginia Sen. John Watkins for his opinion on insurance coverage for autism therapy, only to be told that Mr. Watkins couldn't comment until he'd run it by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

FOIA Council to study criminal records proposal

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council's subcommittee on criminal records will use less formal work sessions to study a proposal by the Virginia Press Association to redo section 2.2-3706, the FOIA section dedicated to law enforcement records.

Editorial: Are we really in favor of free speech?

By John Edwards
The Smithfield Times 

A couple weeks ago, we published on this page a quote from the late Howard Broun, a noted newspaper journalist of a century ago. The quote, it seems, is worth pondering today: "Almost nobody means precisely what he says when he makes the declaration, 'I'm in favor of free speech.'"

Drop everything?

When a New York school district hired a new employee to take care of open records requests, the deputy superintendent for the district had this to say: "We can't be digging out all this information at the same time we're trying to deal with legal issues, budget issues and reduced administrative staff."

His frustration is probably shared by just about every local government in the nation. State government, too.

Local governments in particular have more to do, but less money and fewer people to do it with. They're swamped.

FOIA is and FOIA isn't

In preparation for tomorrow's seminars in Roanoke on FOIA and on records management, I asked our presenters to put together a list of FOIA tips and/or strategies. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing what they come up with.

And in the meantime, I came up with a list of my own.

What would you add?

IN GENERAL

FOIA is a tool for gaining access to records; it's not for getting "information" or answers to questions.

FOIA is not adversarial: keep it cordial and professional.

RECORDS

The old college try

I have to admit, that as the daughter of two former college professors, the flap over using FOIA to gain access to professors' emails makes me a bit queasy.

I know. Sounds hypocritical, doesn't it?

Part of it is disbelief. Deep-seated childhood memories of boredom at the dinner table as they talked on and on about their work makes it hard for me to believe that someone could actually be interested in what they had to say.

We are not (unfortunately) alone

Last year and this year bills were introduced in the Virginia General Assembly that would allow government to get a court order against a citizen it felt was harassing the government through FOIA. Both bills originated from situations in small localities where a lone clerk -- part-time, at that -- was getting too many FOIA requests from the same person and was unable to get other work done.

Last year, the bill was sent to the FOIA Council for study, but no consensus could be reached. This year the bill was killed in subcommittee.

Let's hear it for these pols

I'm passionate about open government. About what it means to our country. About what it means to citizens and to democracy.

Working at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government for over a decade, I've met a lot of other people whose passion for open government's ideal far exceeds mine. Most often these are everyday citizens. Sometimes they are reporters, editors, broadcasters.

And more and more often, the folks I'm hearing from -- the ones whose commitment to open government is so strong it's almost palpable -- are elected officials.

FOIA is part public relations

When my good friend Maria Everett gives presentations to state and local governments as director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Council, she frequently tells people that sometimes, even when what they are doing is legally defensible under the Freedom of Information Act, sometimes it is better from a public relations standpoint, not to do it.

Sometimes you see the same concept phrased like this: it's as important to adhere to the spirit of the law as it is to the letter of the law.

Consider these recent examples:

Testify! But make it brief.

Now that the legislative committee system has wound down (save for the budget conference, which isn't exactly a forum for broad citizen input), I wanted to highlight this column that ran last weekend in the Washington Post.

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