Sunshine Law made simple

Before this semester, I had never completed a sunshine request. But, during Tuesday’s lecture, we got the opportunity to hear from our public life editor, Scott Swafford on the topic. He gave us a run-down of the do’s and don’ts of requesting public information from our local representatives and public officials. It’s information that I will be able to carry with me for the entirety of my career in journalism.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with sunshine requests, they are the state of Missouri’s version of the Freedom of Information Act. Pretty much every state has their own version of it. Basically, under law, anyone considered to be a public governmental body is required to disclose documents and other forms of information to the public (including the press) when requested. The governmental body is required to respond to the request within three business days (although honestly they often find so many ways to skirt around this rule).

Swafford showed us the proper format for sunshine requests, saying that they should be professional and that you have to know exactly the right way to ask for what you need. Government officials often use the wording of a journalist’s sunshine request to avoid giving them the proper information.

To get the best results when making a sunshine request, Swafford left us with a few tips:

  • Always be aware
  • Know what information is meant to be public record
  • Know the custodian of records (if you send the request to the wrong person, it will take even longer to get what you’re looking for!)
  • Think like a lawyer and anticipate loopholes
  • Be persistent and insist that people respond
  • Know the appropriate cost of what you’re requesting (this way you won’t pay too much)
  • Learn to negotiate

After this lecture, I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea of requesting information. It’s not as scary as it seems, I promise. If you want to find out more information about the sunshine request system or learn how to properly format a sunshine request visit the website of Missouri’s Attorney General, here.

 

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