Some don’t get spirit of public access law

(Bloomington) Herald-Times

The work of some students in the Indiana University Media School has revealed again that some of the state’s public officials don’t embrace the spirit of Indiana’s Access to Public Records Law.

The law opens this way:

“Sec. 1. A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees. Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information. This chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy and place the burden of proof for the nondisclosure of a public record on the public agency that would deny access to the record and not on the person seeking to inspect and copy the record.”

That seems clear enough. This law is meant to underscore that information gathered by governmental agencies should be available to the people of the state. It belongs to the people, who are being served by the government officials. It does not belong to the government officials.

When public information is requested, the government default should always be, “How can I best get you that?” rather than “Why should I get you that?” Too often, the latter is the response, whether or not it’s verbalized.

Gerry Lanosga, a faculty member at the IU Media School, and three graduate students learned that during their research on asking for public records electronically. They sent email requests to 90 public agencies in 30 Indiana counties and asked for electronic copies of documents, or to be allowed to copy documents with cellphone cameras.

One third of the agencies did not even respond to the request for information, which they were required to do by law. Only 17 of the 90 agencies provided the information requested without at least adding layers of complexity to the process.

Some of the agencies asked the requesters to fill out forms, and one even asked for the reason for the request. One asked for an ID from the person making the request.

The law says those who want records do not have to explain why they want them or to identify themselves.

Though the state law says agencies must make “reasonable accommodations” to provide electronic copies of documents and information, some agencies seem to think sending an email is an unreasonable request. That mindset needs to change.

For those public officials who dragged their feet, though, there were others who readily provided the information. That’s good news.

But a takeaway from the work of these student journalists, which was done in conjunction with the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, is that some public officials still misunderstand the public’s right to the information gathered by government.

“Sadly, I always expect that there will be problems with public access,” Lanosga said. “I wish I didn’t have to say that.”

We wish he didn’t, too.

This project offers us one more opportunity to repeat the foundation of the public access law: “… government is the servant of the people and not their master. … all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government … Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government …”

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.