2 What is Sunshine Week? Sunshine Week is an annual nationwide week to honor access to public information. The week encourages community members and members of the press to exercise their right to access public records with the Freedom of Information Act. At the college level, nonprofits and other organizations like the Student Press Law Center encourage college newspapers to file requests with their school. This year, SPLC encouraged student reporters to ‘audit’ their schools’ safety documents in the form of crime logs that are mandated by the federal Clery Act. VCU Police publish a crime log online, where it is updated daily and The CT prints this log every Thursday.
FOIA Exemptions Certain documents are not subject to the FOIA. They are:
• National defense or foreign policy information • Documents related to personnel information • Documents protected under other laws • Documents that would reveal trade secrets and commercial or financial information • Documents that are “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandum or letters” • Documents that are “personnel and medical and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” This includes medical records and records about private legal proceedings • Documents that are records compiled for law enforcement purposes • Documents related to reports prepared by, on behalf of or for the use of agencies that regulate financial institutions. • Documents that would reveal oil well data All information compiled and written by Mechelle Hankerson Designed by Ying Jun Cheng
SUNSHINE WEEK 2013 What is the Freedom of Information Act? The Freedom of Information Act passed in 1966 and enacted in 1967 is a federal act that provides that any person has a right to certain records held by public agencies. The act provides for certain exemptions, like not allowing access to records that could jeopardize national security. There are nine total exemptions and three special laws that limit what law enforcement records can be released. Every state in the country has their own version of the FOIA that are often similar to the federal act. Some states’ laws are more stringent than the national act, but Ginger Stanley, the execu-
tive director of the Virginia Press Association, said Virginia’s law, which was codified in 1968, is more moderate than most. “Quite frankly, there are some areas that are worse than others,” Stanley said. The ease of the FOIA’s implementation varies geographically — Stanley said it’s much harder to get records from the Hampton Roads area — but the types of records sometimes makes fulfilling FOIA requests difficult. “If you’re comparing the law enforcement section ... we’re at the bottom because our law enforcement records are underwraps ...
far beyond what many other states have as open records,” she said. Stanley did say Virginia’s law was better than other states’ because it provides for penalties levied against non-cooperative organizations. “If it’s proven in court that you have violated the Freedom of Information Act knowingly and willfully, for the second time, you can pay a fine as much as $5,000,” Stanley said. Those fees are not necessarily just for the group as one entity — it can be brought against individuals in a group, too. CT
Results of The CT’s FOIA requests As part of Sunshine Week, The CT filed FOIA requests with VCU about topics that may be of interest to students and VCU community members. The CT originally filed five requests, one of which was denied, one that did not have any records pertaining to the requests and the rest answered with documents. The CT did file three additional requests after that to find information about drone research at the university. Agencies can charge fees for filling FOIA requests to pay for extra labor or the cost of printing or presenting the actual document, though requesters can ask to have the fee waived. The university asked The CT to pay $42.75 for fulfilling one request, which The CT paid in full. CT
1. Request for list of all alumni donations in the last five years:
Fulfilled at a cost of $42.75
2. Request for VCU’s contract with G4S security: Fulfilled with
redactions pursuant to state law
3. Request for any contract between VCU and the U.S. Department
of Defense regarding drone research: No existing records
4. Request for list of all accidents involving VCU vehicles in
the past two years: Fulfilled at no cost
5. Request for list of all formal complaints against VCU police
officers in the past two years: Request denied pursuant to state law that protects records involving “administrative investigation.”
6. Request for contracts between VCU’s School of Engineering and
NASA regarding research projects: No existing records.
7. Request for contracts between VCU’s School of Engineering and
the U.S. Navy regarding research projects: No existing records.
8. Request for contracts between VCU and Barron Associates, Inc.: Request answered with online information of research agreements between VCU and Barron Associates, Inc. View the results of all FOIA requests and a PDF of all the recovered documents online at commonwealthtimes.org