This July 4th marks a milestone in the history of the public’s right to know: the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act.
The law, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Independence Day 1966, required the federal government to start releasing more information to the public unless it fell under one of a number of exemptions (currently nine). FOIA would become as much a verb as a noun as media and citizens began “FOIAing” for release of documents that would shed light on important issues and federal decisions. The Act also gave new life to state open records laws
Oklahoma Watch reporters often use the state’s Open Records Act or FOIA to seek release of records or data from governments at the state, local or federal level. Among the stories that resulted:
• Earlier this year, a records request unearthed a copy of a state contract confirming that the Oklahoma Highway Patrol had acquired card-reader device allowing troopers to seize suspected drug-trade funds stored on prepaid cards. Our story ignited an intense public debate. Gov. Mary Fallin has suspended the program.
• In April 2015, Oklahoma Watch filed a records request for the graduation rates and numbers for every high school-level school district in the state. The Education Department refused to release the rates for nearly 60 percent of the districts based on privacy concerns. After our story ran, the Board of Education altered the rule to allow for release of the rates.
• In 2013, Oklahoma Watch joined other media in requesting emails sent to and from the governor’s office about a justice reform initiative that had not been stalled. Using those and other records, including the governor’s calendar for outside visitors, Oklahoma Watch produced an in-depth story on how actions by the governor’s staff weakened justice reforms.