By Katie Nix, ONA Intern
You’re working on a story and suddenly discover that the information you’re looking for is a record that belongs to a public agency. Do you give up and stop writing the story? No! What kind of hard-hitting journalist does that?
Instead, you request the records using sections of the Ohio Revised Code known as the Ohio Sunshine Laws. Don’t know how? Follow the steps below.
- Learn the law: It’s important that you go looking for these records knowing more than the public official you’re going up against. Know what section of the Ohio Sunshine Laws you’re using to obtain the information and be prepared to argue it. For more information on the Ohio Sunshine Laws, download the Ohio Attorney General’s Sunshine Law Manual as well as visiting the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide in Ohio.
- Be prepared to argue but don’t go in thinking you’ll have to: “Most public officials and bureaucrats are going to be helpful. If you go in with a chip on your shoulder, you set yourself up for a potentially long, ugly and costly fight,” says Randy Ludlow, senior reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and author of the blog Your Right to Know. “Be charming. If you were born without charm, recruit a naturally pleasant person from your staff to help you. Try to keep things informal.”
- It always helps to be upfront: While the laws in Ohio might not require it, it is always helpful to be upfront with public officials by saying who you are, what company you’re with and why you want the record. The more secretive you are, the less likely they are to give information.
- Start small: Start with a narrow request and then ask for more information as needed. Starting out big will only get you trouble. “Bureaucrats…are fond of arguing that requests are overly broad to deny access to record,” Ludlow says.
- Hard copies don’t hurt: Putting your request in writing is always helpful, especially if being verbal and pleasant doesn’t get you what you need. It’s also good to keep hard copies for organizational purposes if you have to follow up or if you have to sue for the records.
- Follow up: “Some agencies count on us forgetting about the requests and won’t respond unless prodded. Keep on them!” Ludlow says. Don’t be so quick to give up if you don’t hear back from the officials. You have a right to these records unless they fall under one of the Ohio Sunshine Law exceptions (such as things that fall under attorney-client or physician-patient privilege, as well as what is prohibited by state of federal law such as constitutional provisions, statutes, common law, or authorized state or federal administrative codes).
- Give them a last chance and then write the story with or without them: Let them know you’re writing the story if they help you or not, but if they don’t, the story will instead be about their inability to follow the law and release the records. However, don’t make the story about the media vs. the government. Make it about everyone not being able to gain access to records. The Ohio Sunshine Laws apply to all Ohioans so anyone can request records.
ONA members in good standing also have access to the ONA legal hotline. Executive Director Dennis Hetzel often gives on-the-spot advice to reporters and editors who need help with open records or open meetings. Hetzel also can refer questions to ONA’s legal hotline attorney, Lou Colombo. Hetzel can be reached at 614-486-6677 or email@example.com.
Additionally, an in-depth resource on Ohio’s open records laws and strategies to get them is a book by expert attorney David Marburger and Karl Idsvoog of Kent State University. Marburger’s book, “Access with Attitude: An Advocate’s Guide to Freedom of Information in Ohio,” can be ordered at the Ohio University Press website, www.ohioswallow.com, for $29.95, but all ONA members will receive a 30 percent discount when using the discount code M1121 for orders of one to four. For a 40 percent discount on orders of five or more copies, contact Ohio University Press’s business manager, Kristi Goldsberry, at (740) 593-1156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.