San Francisco has the best local sunshine law in the country and there are still problems getting access to information. Even though the digital age in which we live affords government agencies with myriad ways to give citizens more access to public documents, there is too often little official will to create transparency. And often, bureaucrats are downright hostile to public scrutiny. But help is out there. This guide to local and national organizations offers a wide range of resources for journalists, citizen activists, and hell-raisers who want to track their tax money and hold their government accountable.
The California First Amendment Coalition is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to "promote and defend the people’s right to know" by improving compliance with state and federal access laws. CFAC’s Web site contains an archive of articles dealing with FOI issues, the texts of state FOI laws, and other useful resources. 534 Fourth St., Suite B, San Raphael, CA 94901. (415) 460-5060, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.cfac.org.
The California Newspaper Publishers Association is the umbrella organization to which most newspapers in the state belong, so it has an acute interest in open government. Its FOI Watch newsletter (also available online) includes a clearinghouse of sunshine news from around the state. 708 Tenth St., Sacramento, CA 95814. (916) 288-6015, email@example.com (general counsel Thomas Newton), www.cnpa.com.
Californians Aware, run by former CFAC general counsel Terry Francke, helps activists and organizations get access to public meetings and records and offers resources on the Web for citizens, public officials, journalists, and attorneys. 2218 Homewood Way, Carmichael, CA 95608. (916) 487-7000, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.calaware.org.
The Center for Investigative Reporting sponsors workshops on investigative techniques for journalists and university students. The center’s Web-based magazine provides FOI information, tips for journalists, and updates on past CIR investigations. 2927 Newbury St., Suite A, Berkeley, CA 94703. (510) 809-3160, email@example.com, www.muckraker.org.
The DataCenter provides on-call research, consultation, and referrals to justice organizations regarding FOI issues. It also offers research and action training. Services are free or on a sliding scale, depending on one’s ability to pay. 1904 Franklin St., Suite 900, Oakland, CA 94612. (510) 835-4692, ext. 376, www.datacenter.org.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online First Amendment organization, works to uphold digital free speech, empower the online public, and protect privacy on the Internet. It provides stories and alerts on its Web site, with daily updates. Effector, an e-mail newsletter, is available through the site. 454 Shotwell St., S.F., CA 94110. (415) 436-9333, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.eff.org.
The First Amendment Project is a public interest law firm that provides legal representation, educational programs, and low-cost or free advice for journalists, public interest organizations, and individual citizens with public records and FOI-related issues. In a joint publication effort with the Society of Professional Journalists, the project offers three free pocket guides, on the Brown Act, California’s Open Meeting Law, and accessing court records. The Web page has information on using the California Public Records Act as well as on getting court records. 1736 Franklin St., 9th floor, Oakland, CA 94612. (510) 208-7744, email@example.com, www.thefirstamendment.org.
Media Alliance is a nonprofit media center that offers classes on journalism skills, including how to find and use public records. 1904 Franklin St., Suite 500 Oakland, CA 94612. (510) 832-9000, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.media-alliance.org.
The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, FOI Committee fights for open access to information and educates members of the public on FOI issues. The group provides a subscription e-mail list for journalists and others involved in FOI and First Amendment issues in California as well as putting on the James Madison FOI Awards. 222 Sutter St, 6th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108 (415) 321-1700, www.spj.org/norcal.
The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information conducts research and educates the public in mass-media law and the First Amendment, including public access to government meetings and records and litigation information. University of Florida, College of Journalism and Communications, 3208 Weimer Hall, P.O. Box 118400, Gainesville, FL 32611-8400. (352) 392-2273, www.jou.ufl.edu/brechner.
The Center for National Security Studies works with concerned citizens and groups to expose secret government policies and offers free assistance to those seeking records under the Freedom of Information Act. It also coordinates related litigation. 1120 19th St. NW, 8th floor, Washington, D.C. 20036. (202) 721-5650, email@example.com, www.cnss.org.
The FOIA Blog, created by an FOIA Washington attorney, has an updated list of documents currently being released by several government agencies firstname.lastname@example.org, www.thefoiablog.typepad.com.
The Freedom of Information Center of the University of Missouri School of Journalism has a collection of more than one million articles and documents about access to information at the local, state, and federal levels. The center works to ensure compliance with sunshine laws around the country. Its Web site contains links, updates, and tips on FOI inquiries. A free e-mail newsletter provides information on developments in FOI access and issues; you can sign up by contacting email@example.com. University of Missouri, 133 Neff Annex, Columbia, MO 65211. (573) 882-5736, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.missouri.edu/~foiwww.
GovernmentDocs allows people to browse and search thousands of pages acquired through the FOIA and sunshine laws. Registered users can review and comment on documents. www.governmentdocs.org
GovTrack provides information on the U.S. Congress. It compiles information on federal legislation, voting records, and other congressional date and simplifies the language for ordinary citizens. It also indexes all bills, as well as changes to them, in Congress and all roll call votes www.govtrack.us.
Investigative Reporters and Editors provides educational services for investigative reporters and editors. The group’s Web site offers FOI-related resource guides, a database of FOI stories, tips for using the Freedom of Information Act, and a database of previous FOI requests. University of Missouri School of Journalism, 138 Neff Annex, Columbia, MO 65211. (573) 882-2042, www.ire.org
The National Freedom of Information Coalition is composed of First Amendment organizations dealing with FOI issues. It provides resources for the media, government officials, lawyers, and citizens who want access to public information. The coalition also offers seminars and workshops to media professionals, attorneys, academics, students, and the public on FOI issues and helps nurture start-up FOI groups and Internet sites. Its Web site offers links to relevant legislation and organizations state by state, as well as an Internet mailing list, FOI-L. 133 Neff Annex, Columbia, MO 65211. (573) 882-5736, email@example.com, www.nfoic.org.
OMB Watch is a member of the Public Access Working Group, a coalition of organizations promoting greater access to government information. OMB Watch offers an online newsletter, OMB Watcher, available on its Web site or by e-mail, which typically includes articles on FOI issues. To subscribe to the weekly e-mail version, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. 1742 Connecticut NW, Washington, D.C. 20009. (202) 234-8494, www.ombwatch.org.
The Project on Government Secrecy is an advocacy and public education project of the Federation of American Scientists. The project has an extensive archive and provides regular news updates through its Web site and e-mail newsletter, Secrecy News. 1725 DeSales Street NW, 6th floor, Washington, D.C. 20036. (202) 454-4691, www.fas.org/sgp/index.htm.
Project Vote Smart provides information on local, state, and national candidates, including voting records, issue positions, campaign contributions, phone numbers, and mailing addresses. The database is accessible by calling the toll-free hotline at 1-888-VOTE-SMART. 1 Common Ground, Phillipsburg, MT 59858. (406) 859-8683 email@example.com, www.vote-smart.org.
The Radio-Television News Directors Association is the world’s largest professional organization devoted to electronic journalism. It lobbies for cameras in courtrooms and strong FOI laws and provides coverage of FOI issues on its Web site. 1600 K St. NW, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20006. (202) 659-6510, www.rtnda.org.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press operates the 24-hour FOI Service Center at 1-800-336-4243 to answer emergency questions from journalists and others with open-records problems. 1101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1101, Arlington, VA 22209. (703) 807-2100, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rcfp.org.
The Society of Professional Journalists advocates for open access to information and educates members of the public on FOI issues. The society’s Web site has an FOI section with extensive links to resources and information, including a list of FOI advocacy organizations. 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208. (317) 927-8000, email@example.com, www.spj.org.
State Sunshine and Open Records shares information, guidance and advice on developments and news about open records at the state and local level. They also have an extensive list of links to other sunshine blogs. www.openrecords.wordpress.com.
The Student Press Law Center works with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to cover FOI and other First Amendment issues reutf8g to high school and college journalists. It offers free advice, lawyer referrals, and analysis. 1101 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1100, Arlington, VA 22209. (703) 807-1904, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.splc.org.
The Sunlight Foundation develops a database to ensure transparency in government and fiscal accountability. They digitize new info and provide access to existing information. 1818 N Street NW, Suite 410, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 742-1520. www.sunlightfoundation.com.
WikiFOIA helps people understand the FOI Act on a state and federal level by providing a how-to-guide about open records requests, as well information on how to make that request. www.wikifoia.pbwiki.com.
INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AND RESOURCES
The Guardian Web site has extensive information and links concerning international press-freedom issues. For details on journalists under fire, including frontline dispatches and reports from the battle to keep the world safe for journalists, go to www.sfbg.com/journalists/. For updates, dispatches, and links to national and international FOI groups, go to www.sfbg.com/FOI.
The UK FOI Blog provides a glimpse into how FOI issues are dealt with across the pond by listing news and developments on FOI in Great Britain. www.foia.blogspot.com.
Local government resources
The Government Information Center, on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch, stocks public documents published by the city. These include annual reports for committees and departments, minutes and agendas of official meetings, environmental impact reports, and city audits, ordinances, and resolutions. San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F., CA 94102. (415) 557-4500, www.sfpl.org.
The Oakland Public Ethics Commission responds to complaints and holds hearings on possible violations of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. Records, tapes of the commission’s meetings, agendas, and minutes can be picked up at the commission’s office. 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, 4th floor, Oakland, CA 94612. (510) 238-3593, email@example.com, www.oaklandnet.com/government/public_ethics/webpage.html.
The Office of Information and Privacy, U.S. Department of Justice, provides online versions of frequently requested records, opinions, policy statements, and guides to the Freedom of Information Act. The guides include detailed instructions for filing FOIA requests, average response times for different governmental offices, and a wealth of other useful information. The text of the FOIA is available on the office’s Web site. 1425 New York Ave., Suite 11050, Washington, D.C. 20530. (202) 514-3642, www.usdoj.gov/oip/oip.html.
Public Access to Court Electronic Records is an online database of court records and decisions. Web access is 8¢ a page, and requires registration through the Web at www.pacer.psc.uscourts.gov. P.O. Box 780549, San Antonio, TX 78278. 1-800-676-6856, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The San Francisco Ethics Commission monitors and enforces the Sunshine Ordinance and the city’s governmental-ethics, campaign-finance, and lobbyist-reporting laws. Individuals can file complaints regarding violations of the Sunshine Ordinance. The commission meets the second Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall, Room 408. 25 Van Ness, Suite 220, S.F., CA 94102. (415) 252-3100, email@example.com, www.sfgov.org/site/ethics_index.asp.
The San Francisco Law Library is open to the public, though only government officials, state bar members, and judges can check out items. Main reference library: Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Veterans War Memorial Building, 401 Van Ness, Room 400, S.F. (415) 554-6821. Courthouse reference room: Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 400 McAllister, Room 512, S.F. (415) 551-3647. Financial District branch: Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., noon-4 p.m., 685 Market St., Suite 420, S.F. (415) 882-9310, www.ci.sf.ca.us/site/sfll_index.asp.
The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force oversees compliance with San Francisco’s sunshine law by investigating complaints from individuals who believe city officials have withheld records or conducted meetings in violation of the law. The task force meets the fourth Tuesday of each month at 4 p.m. City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 244 (meetings held in Room 408), S.F. For complaint forms and other information call (415) 554-7724 or go to http://www.sfgov.org/site/sunshine_index.asp
The California First Amendment Coalition publishes the California Journalist’s Legal Notebook, a handy guide to the legal issues surrounding telephone interviews, press passes, gags on sources, and other journalism-related topics ($36.25, $30.88 for CFAC members, shipping included). Also by CFAC is The New Brown Act: How the Open Meeting Law Has Been Revised ($12.75, $7.39 for CFAC members, shipping included). (415) 460-5060.
The Oakland Public Ethics Commission publishes a free brochure, How to Notice a Public Meeting under the Oakland Sunshine Ordinance and the Brown Act, useful for making sure a public meeting follows the requirements of the Brown Act. (510) 238-3593, (510) 238-6620, ethicscommission@Oaklandnet.com, www.oaklandnet.com/government/public_ethics/webpage.html.
Access to Courts and Court Records in California, Open Meeting Laws in California, and The California Public Records Act are free, convenient, quick-reference guides published by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, and the First Amendment Project. (510) 208-7744, www.thefirstamendment.org/freepress.html.
The ACLU Freedom of Information Project publishes Using the Freedom of Information Act: A Step-by-Step Guide (#4002, $3) and Your Right to Government Information (#1190, $5.95), which covers a broader range of topics, including how to get into public meetings. Both publications can be ordered online through the ACLU’s e-store or by phone. ACLU Publications, P.O. Box 4713, Trenton, NJ 08650-4713. 1-800-775-2258, www.aclu.org.
The Government Printing Office publishes The Freedom of Information Act Guide and Privacy Act Overview ($63), a 986-page guide to the FOIA produced by the Justice Department. It can be ordered by phone at 1-866-512-1800 or online at bookstore.gpo.gov. The Citizen’s Guide is available in its entirety online at www.fas.org/sgp/foia/citizen.html.
The Freedom of Information Clearinghouse Guidebook is a free brochure about making FOIA requests and appealing agency decisions. It’s available online through the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse. www.citizen.org/litigation/free_info/index.cfm.
Paper Trails: A Guide to Public Records in California ($12.89), written by Stephen Levine and Barbara Newcombe, is published by the Center for Investigative Reporting and supported by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. It can be ordered from the CIR. An abridged, online version is coming soon. 2927 Newbury St., Suite A, Berkeley,, CA 94703. (510) 809-3160, www.centerforinvestigativereporting.org/
The fourth edition of the Investigative Reporters’ Handbook ($61, $51 for Investigative Reporters and Editors members), by Steve Weinberg, Brant Houston, and Len Bruzzese, is a comprehensive and accessible guide for novice and experienced journalists that shows how to locate and use more than 500 sources of public information. (573) 882-3364, www.ire.org/store/books.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supplies a wealth of publications on public access and other First Amendment topics. How to Use the Federal FOI Act ($5) is a handbook on FOI rights, with instructions for appealing if your request is denied, and includes sample letters. The First Amendment Handbook ($7.50) is a journalist’s pocket guide to FOI issues. Two guides Judicial Records: A Guide to Access ($3) and Access to Electronic Records ($5) analyze state laws and decisions regarding access to legal records and government electronic data. Tapping Officials’ Secrets is a set of guides to state public records and open-meeting laws ($10 a state). The News Media and the Law is a quarterly magazine that includes updates on legislation pertinent to FOI ($30 a year for four issues). Some of these publications are available in their entirety online; all can be ordered online. 1-800-336-4243, www.rcfp.org.
The second edition of Law of the Student Press ($18) is a vital handbook for student newspapers. It’s extensively annotated but avoids legalese and tries to bring the law to life for students and educators. The Student Press Law Center also publishes Covering Campus Crime, Third Edition ($2) and the Student Press Law Center Report ($15 for three issues a year). (703) 807-1904, www.splc.org.
Citizen Muckraking: How to Investigate and Right Wrongs in Your Community ($9) offers advice on writing press releases, conducting interviews, and using the FOIA. The book, a collaborative effort by the Center for Public Integrity, is available through Common Courage Press. 1-800-497-3207, www.commoncouragepress.com
EDITORIAL The move by US Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to remove protections for transgender people from a landmark antidiscrimination bill has set off a remarkable furor in the queer community nationwide. The condemnation of the Frank move by even fairly mainstream lesbian and gay organizations is a sign of how far trans people have come and the fact that Frank, the first openly gay man to serve in Congress, isn’t budging is a sign of how far the political establishment still has to go.
But the full bill, without the cuts, is still very much alive, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (DSan Francisco) needs to move it to the floor and bring it to a vote.
HR 2015 has been a priority of the Human Rights Campaign and other national LGBT groups for years. The bill, also known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, in its original version would have outlawed employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The second part of that phrase is critical, not just to transgender people but to queer workers in general: as the American Civil Liberties Union points out in a legal analysis of the changes, the gay and lesbian people most likely to face discrimination in the workplace are those who don’t hew to traditional male and female roles. Effeminate men and butch women are far more at risk than, say, a gay man who can easily pass as straight. "The more masculine a gay man is or the more feminine a lesbian is, the less the likelihood of discrimination," the ACLU notes. As the Lambda Legal Defense Fund writes, "This new bill also leaves out a key element to protect any employee, including lesbians, gay men and bisexuals who may not conform to their employer’s idea of how a man or woman should look and act. This is a huge loophole through which employers sued for sexual orientation discrimination can claim that their conduct was actually based on gender expression, a type of discrimination that the new bill does not prohibit."
But the politics are more difficult. Frank argues that Congress might pass a stripped-down version of the bill, but the votes aren’t there for anything that can be described as protecting transgender people. Some protection for some lesbians and gays, he argues, is better than none at all.
That ignores the reality, which is that George W. Bush is going to veto any bill that protects queer people from discrimination anyway. The fight over HR 2015 is largely symbolic; the bill won’t become law until there’s a Democrat in the White House. And if the gender-identity language isn’t in the bill this time, it will be much harder to add it in later.
All civil rights advances seem hopeless at first. The first marriage-equality bill in the California Legislature faced strong opposition, but Assemblymember Mark Leno (DSan Francisco) kept bringing it back and every time it came up, it got more votes. ENDA’s got the same prospects.
Of course, there’s a larger issue here: compromising on civil rights is always unacceptable. And as writer Wayne Besen puts it, "A minority as small as the trans community will never have the political clout to go it alone, nor will they have the funds to wage a credible fight in Congress unless Bill Gates wakes up tomorrow and decides to have a sex change. To put it bluntly, their only chance at legal protection is under the gay and lesbian banner."
The HRC has been awfully weak, refusing to pull its support for the watered-down bill, but most other LGBT groups nationwide are urging Congress not to accept the Frank proposal. We agree. The fate of HR 2015 is in the hands of Pelosi, who can simply bring the original bill to the floor. That’s what activists should push her to do.