Freedom of Information laws are your tool to use
Wed, 03/15/2023 - 11:20am admin
Do you want to know how much the mayor or your city officials make? Do you have questions about Berkeley County School District’s curriculum? Do you want to know the cost and status of the Clements Ferry Road widening projects?
In the United States, there are laws that protect your right to know the answer to these questions and many more. Collectively they are known as Sunshine Laws. The federal government and many states, including South Carolina, have Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) that guarantee your right to access information.
At the paper, our reporters regularly use FOIA to get information for stories involving state and local governments.
For example, our editor requested and received from the Berkeley County School District copies of former Superintendent Deon Jackson’s and current Superintendent Anthony Dixon’s employment contracts. He used that information in connection with stories he wrote about
Mr. Jackson’s surprise firing and the equally quick and surprise hiring of Dr. Dixon.
Our reporters regularly access police reports from the Charleston Police Department so we can report on crime.
Many years ago, when I was an attorney handling federal and state highway construction claims, I routinely sent FOIA requests to the federal and state departments of transportation to acquire records relating to construction plans and delays.
FOIA is not mysterious or available only to media outlets or lawyers. You and every citizen can request and are entitled to receive information by making requests under FOIA.
This week, this newspaper and newspapers throughout the state and country are celebrating Sunshine Week. We celebrate this week by working to inform citizens about their rights to information. When the government operates in secrecy, the citizens often foot large tax bills and surprise decisions can negatively impact citizens’ lives.
If you want to know information about what your government is doing, you can use FOIA to get your answers.
Here’s how to do it:
The first step is simply to go to the governmental body and to ask for the information you want. If that doesn’t work, the next step is to ask in writing and to include the words “Freedom of Information” request. You can make your request by email, fax or letter. Be specific about what you want.
You are entitled to an answer within 10-20 days, depending on what you request, and they have up to 30 days to produce the materials you want. The government body may charge you reasonable fees for photocopying and other expenses, but oftentimes they will provide it at no charge. There are also some exceptions to what information is accessible.
South Carolina Press Association, of which this paper is a member, created a guide to educate citizens about FOIA, how to use it to gather information about your government, what to expect, and what might be excluded.
You can access the guide here: scpress.org/foia-citizens-guide.
You may also contact me via phone 843-856-1999 or email email@example.com if you’d like more information or have questions about how you can use the Sunshine Laws to hold your government accountable.
You may read the full text of South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act here: scstatehouse.gov/code/t30c004.php.