Back in January, the Citizen Media Law Project began rolling out its Citizen Media Legal Guide. So far, we’ve published major sections of the guide covering Forming a Business and Getting Online, Dealing with Online Legal Risks, and Newsgathering and Privacy. This week we began rolling out the section on Access to Government Information,
which highlights the extensive amount of information available through
government sources and explains how both traditional and
non-traditional journalists can use various public access laws to
gather and make effective use of this information.

To whet your appetite, I’ve pasted the first part of the overview to this new section below:

Access to Government Information

This section of the legal guide outlines the wide-array of
information available to you from government sources. These sources
range from your local city council all the way up to the largest
agencies in the federal government. In fact, you might be quite
surprised at how much information is available to you. And the best
part is that you generally don’t need to hire a lawyer or file any
complicated forms — you can access most of this information simply by
showing up or filing a relatively simple request. Moreover, you don’t
need to be a professional journalist to share what you find with others
who are interested in these issues; with nothing more than an Internet
connection, you can make the information available to anyone in the
world. For an impressive example of how some people are using the power
of new information technologies in conjunction with government
information, check out Adrian Holovaty’s Chicagocrime.org, a browsable database of crimes reported in Chicago.

Regardless of what you publish online, it is likely that at
least one (if not many) of the information sources we discuss in this
section will be valuable to you. For example, you might want to find
out whether the drinking water coming out of your faucet contains
pollutants (information that is likely contained in documents held by
the Environmental Protection Agency or one of its state counterparts).
Perhaps you’d like to know more about how your local school board makes
decisions (information that you can get by attending school board
meetings). Or perhaps you are concerned that a real estate developer
may have been sued for fraud (information that is available by visiting
the courthouse in person or accessing the court’s electronic docketing
system).

Information from these government sources will be especially
useful to you if you want to take your publishing activities beyond
merely commenting on material posted by others. These sources can help
you move into original reporting and enable you to comment in an
informed fashion on local and national debates. You might even do a
periodic post or column on subjects of particular interest to your
website or blog. For example, the Gotham Gazette, an independent news site that covers “New York City News and Policy,” has an entire section focusing on city government, which is largely based on meetings of the New York City Council.

We should point out, however, that the information you gather
from these government sources doesn’t have to be limited to the actions
of the government itself. Government bodies collect extensive
information on individuals, corporations, and other organizations. Much
of this information is available to the public. You just have to know
where to look.

The first thing you will need to consider is which government
entity likely has the information you are seeking. Public access to
government information extends to a broad range of government sources,
including federal and state agencies, Congress and state legislatures,
government boards and committees, and the courts. In fact, it might be
the case that the information you are interested in is located in more
than one place. A little advanced research on your part can go a long
way when dealing with the government. Because different laws apply to
different government entities, you will want to review each section of
this guide that might apply to your situation. If you are not sure
whether the information you seek is associated with a federal, state,
or local government body, refer to the page on Federal, State, and Local Government Bodies for some helpful information.

It is also worth bearing in mind that laws granting access to
government information are only one of many important fact-finding
tools in your information gathering toolbox. These laws can be very
powerful, but their scope is limited to records and information
available through government sources. For a broad overview of how you
can investigate a full range of actors, including government,
individuals, and corporations, see the Newsgathering section of this guide and check out the Center for Investigative Reporting’s entertaining and inspirational guide, Raising Hell: A Citizens Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation.

* * *

If you are interested in reading more, you will find the rest of this overview in the Legal Guide.

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