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Teaching FOI

By David Cuillier
Society of Professional Journalists FOI Committee chairman
Director, Associate Professor
Department of Journalism
University of Arizona

Here are some resources for teaching FOI in a media law course, reporting course, or on its own. If you have other ideas, feel free to forward them to David Cuillier at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.

Record requests
Require students to request one public record. Have them research the law, submit a records request letter, follow it through, then summarize what they found and what they encountered. Jim Sernoe of Midwestern State University has found that students appreciate the hands-on learning from this exercise. This is a simple assignment that can be incorporated easily into reporting or law courses.

Organized FOI audits
Some professors assign organized class audits of specific agencies within the community or statewide. For example, a 2004 FOI class co-taught by Susan Ross and David Cuillier at Washington State University requested dozens of records from 20 universities in five Northwest states to find widespread noncompliance of the Clery Act (seehttp://www.washingtoncog.org/media/images/resources/ANWOverviewRecordsAudit.pdf). Charles Davis, an access guru from the University of Missouri-Columbia and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, developed an audit toolkit that can be applied by professionals and classes (http://www.spj.org/foitoolkit.asp). Also, see a good description of implementing an audit in the classroom by Terry Wimmer, now of the University of Arizona, who presented a FOI audit as an AEJMC Great Idea for Teaching in 2002 (http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2002.pdf, pp. 86-88). Research indicates that audits can increase student support for FOI (see Simon, J. & Sapp, D. A. (2006). Learning inside and outside the classroom: Civic journalism and the Freedom of Information Act, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 61(2)).

I seek dead people
Carol S. Lomicky of the University of Nebraska-Kearney won the 2002 Great Ideas for Teaching grand prize award at AEJMC for a FOI exercise that utilized dead people. She assigns students to go to a cemetery and find a grave. Then, using documents, students research that person. Students tap into records involving census, probate, birth, marriage, military and others. Find a description of this award-winning idea at http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2002.pdf, pp. 53-55.

Secret justice
This is a Great Idea for Teaching presented at AEJMC in 2002 by Kenneth C. Killebrew of University of South Florida. In this exercise, the class is divided into groups. One student is put into detention and each group is given different information about the facts of the case and asked to deliberate and find innocence or guilt. Only one group is given all the facts. The students can vote in secret on whether to charge the student. When all the groups reveal their decisions and realize they weren’t acting with all the facts they realize that information and open deliberation are needed for a fair and just society. See complete description at http://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2002.pdf, pp. 44-46.

Dream House
This Great Idea for Teaching grand prize winner presented in 2006 by David Cuillier of the University of Arizona takes the traditional audit and adds a practical twist that makes FOI relevant to students’ future personal lives: buying a house. They are assigned a real house for sale in the community and then told to go out and find everything they can about the house and neighborhood through public records. They tap into property records, crime reports, zoning maps, airport noise maps, environmental records, and other documents. Pretest-posttest surveying found this exercise increased support for access even more than students who conducted a traditional audit. Relevancy helps build motivation and support for FOI. See description at http://www.spj.org/foigift.asp.

Bleachers of fury: Interactive slideshow
For this exercise, after going through FOI law in lecture and readings, work through the issues in an interactive PowerPoint slideshow. Create a story line of mayhem at a campus football game, using photos with permission from the campus paper, athletic department or local newspaper. A player is injured and taken to the hospital – are you entitled to know who it is and extent of injuries? A protester is arrested outside the stadium – are you entitled to know the person’s name and get an incident report? Half the crowd gets sick from the nacho cheese – where do you find the vendor and recent health inspections? The bleachers collapse – are you entitled to know who built them? Incorporate issues that students discuss in groups and then as a class in deciding whether information should be public. This exercise was a Great Idea for Teaching in 2007, presented by David Cuillier, and is available athttp://www.aejmc.org/_scholarship/teaching/gift/booklets/2007.pdf, pp. 18-21.

FOI Web multimedia and cartoons
Sometimes it’s nice to have some visual material to break up the lecture or enhance a syllabus. Here are some interesting online Flash presentations and videos regarding FOI, as well as places to get good editorial cartoons:

FOI News for discussion fodder
Sometimes it helps to raise current FOI issues during class to spur discussion. Here are some Web sites and blogs that post FOI news:

Books and readings
Looking for books or readings on FOI? Below is a list of just some that are out there. Also, check out an annotated bibliography compiled by AccessNorthwest at Washington State University, including a list of resources by access guru Michael Ravnitzky: http://www.wsu.edu/~accessnw/resources/bibs.htm

Alterman, E. (2004). When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences. NY: Penguin.
Bok, S. (1999). Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private LifeNY: Pantheon.
Bok, S. (1982). Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and RevelationNY: Pantheon.
Brin, D. (1999). The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? Perseus.
Chapman, R. A., & Hunt, M. (2006). Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context.Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Cross, H. (1953). The People’s Right to Know. NY: Columbia.
Davis, C. N., & Splichal, S. L. (2000). Access Denied: Freedom of Information in the Information Age. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Demac, D. A. (1988). Liberty Denied: The Current Rise of CensorshipRutgers University Press.
Devolpi, A., et al. (1981). Born Secret: The H-Bomb, the Progressive Case and National Security. Pergamon Policy Studies on Business and Economics. NY: Pergamon.
Franck & Weisband, (1986). Secrecy and Foreign PolicyNY: Oxford.
Fung, A., Graham, M., & Weil, D. (2007). Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Gup, T. (2007). Nation of Secrets: The threat to democracy and the American way of life. NY: Doubleday.
Halprin, M., & Hoffman, D. (1977). Freedom vs. National Security: Secrecy and SurveillanceChelsea    House.
Hoffman, D. (1981). Governmental Secrecy and the Founding Fathers: A Study in Constitutional Controls. Contributions in Legal Studies, Westport: Greenwood Press.
Hood, C., & Heald, D. (2006). Transparency: The Key to Better Governance? NY: Oxford University Press.
Kimball, P. (1983). The FileSan Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Lord, K. M. (2006). The Perils and Promise of Global Transparency: Why the Information Revolution May Not Lead to Security, Democracy, or Peace. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Marchetti, V. (1974). CIA and the Cult of IntelligenceNY: Dell.
McDermott, P. (2007). Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information. Lanham, MD: Bernan Press.
Moynihan, D. P. (1999). Secrecy: The American ExperienceNew Haven: Yale University Press.
Piotrowski, S. J. (2007). Governmental Transparency in the Path of Administrative Reform. State University of New York Press.
Roberts, A. (2006). Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Shawcross, W. (1979). Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of CambodiaNY: Simon and Schuster.
Snepp, F. (1977). Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief  Strategy Analyst in VietnamNY: Random House.
Snepp, F. (2001). Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle over Free Speech. NY: Random House.
Florini, A. (2007). The Right to Know: Transparency for an Open World. NY: Columbia University Press.
Stone, G. R. (2007). Top Secret: When our Government Keeps us in the Dark. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Stone, G. R. (2007). War and Liberty: An American Dilemma, 1790 to the Present. NY: Norton.
Stone, G. R. (2004). Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime. NY: Norton.
Ungar, S. J. (1972). The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers. NY: E.P. Dutton.
Wiener, J. (1999). Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wiggins, J. R. (1964). Freedom or SecrecyNY: Oxford.

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