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FOIA is Useful for all Citizens, Not Just Journalists

By DezTanie Stover

Wayne State University Student Journalist

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that many citizens are unfamiliar with.

For those who are aware, they find difficulty in navigating through the process of requesting the

information they’re looking for.

Wayne State University and the Society of Professional Journalists hosted the FOIA

Festival on Saturday, October 12th to address the issues with FOIA. Basic information was

shared with the audience about FOIA, the excessive fees for requests, and its need for reform.

Currently Michigan is the only state that has the governor’s office and state legislature exempt

from FOIA, which makes requesting and accessing certain information much harder.

Panelists gathered during a breakout session to discuss how citizens can use FOIA.

Among the panelists were Jewel Gopwani, Senior Editor of Engagement for the Detroit Free

Press, Sarah Alvarez, CEO of Outlier Media, Ralph C. Simpson, an attorney who specializes in

FOIA counseling & litigation, Maureen Krasner, Senior Program Manager for Michigan

Community Resources and lastly Vince Duffy, News Director at Michigan Public Radio, who
moderated the session.

Photo Credit: Kathy Johnson, SPJ Detroit

The panelists gave detailed advice on how citizens should go about filing a FOIA request and the

steps you should take beforehand.

“Educate yourself and do research ahead of time,” said Krasner. “It’s a hit or miss.”

You’ll have a stronger chance of getting the information you’re requesting, if you do as

much research as you can, but there’s always still a chance of being denied.

“Sometimes things are overly-specific, just because you’re specific doesn’t mean you’ll

get a yes,” said Krasner.

“Most of the questions you have and the information you’re looking for is held by public

officials, build relationships with them, it is faster than filing a FOIA,” suggested Gopwani.
Establishing relationships with those public officials and community members can help

people feel less threatened by the process.

“I felt totally intimidated,” said Alvarez on her first time filing a FOIA request. Though

she knew the process was rough, she still knew it was beneficial in the end.

“I love FOIA, I’m glad it exists, and it should be stronger in Michigan,” she said.

Alvarez gave two tips that she feels is helpful for citizens dealing with FOIA. The first tip

was to go to public meetings and take notes to become aware of what’s going on. The second tip

was to call a reporter directly and ask them where they got their information and if they could

share it with you.

Alvarez suggested the program Detroit Documenters for citizens getting involved in

public meetings. Detroit Documenters is a journalism project where you’re trained and paid to

attend public meetings and gather notes on what’s happening and being said in the meeting.

Afterwards, your notes are submitted online at documenters.org, and will be available for other

citizens to read.

Another program that can help citizens with FOIA, is the non-profit organization

MuckRock. The organization helps citizens file a FOIA request and follows up for you with

dates and deadlines if you don’t receive a response within five business days. MuckRock also

shows past FOIA requests filed to see which ones have been approved and denied.

“You can contact the person who denied your FOIA request,” said Alvarez. “You can ask

for an explanation why.”


Simpson was able to provide a legal perspective of FOIA as an attorney who specializes

in FOIA counseling. He talked about why government officials can sometimes be difficult when

dealing with FOIA requests.

“Not all government entities are motivated by the same things,” he said.

State Senator Jeremy Moss, who is currently head of FOIA reform in Michigan, spoke

earlier in day about how government officials could be so resistant because they are “mistrusting

media intentions”.

Simpson also suggests that citizens should contact an attorney if they’re receiving

“continuous denial of important documents such as information from school boards.”

The biggest question still lies. How can journalists spread awareness about FOIA so that

more citizens are aware of the law and the restrictions surrounding it in Michigan? Reporting on

the law, holding events, and attending Sunshine Week in March, are all good ways to shine the

light on FOIA and its need for reform.

“It’s a scary process,” says Alvarez. “But to be good at it, you have to practice.”

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