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The Freedom of Information Act
“Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
– Mark Twain
Freedom of Information
You have the right to access information about how your government works. This is a little understood tool for many advocates. Generally, it is not necessary. Most government bodies are more than willing to share their work. The huge increase in government information available on the web is a testament to the general openness of government information. Agency employees often know that you have a legal right to the information and are thrilled that someone has noticed the work they do.
Usually, all that is needed is a call to someone at an agency and they will send you the documents. Some may ask you to put the request in writing; generally they will let you know what to include in the letter and how to send it (email, FAX or snail mail). It is important to be reasonable; broad requests can be burdensome for people at the agency and give you far more information than you want. Be as specific as possible; it is best if you can identify the exact documents you need.
If the agency is not being cooperative, put your request in writing. Then follow up. Call the agency, find the person responsible for requests, be sure they have your letter, and ask when you can expect the document. And keep calling until you get what you need.
It is rare that requests for information become contentious. If you are polite and are creating good working relationships with policymakers, this will likely never come up.
Sometimes, especially when you are requesting information from a federal agency, you will be referred to that agency’s Freedom of Information Office or asked to make your request through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).This law was enacted in 1966 and amended in 1996 by the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments.Each federal agency has someone in charge of Freedom of Information requests.Often agency websites contain contact information and instructions for making FOIA requests.
Most states also have their own Freedom of Information legislation, often called Open Records laws.Oklahoma’s Open Records Act is found at 51 O.S. Section 24A.1 - 24A.29.The law requires that most records of public bodies and public officials shall be open to any person for inspection, copying, or mechanical reproduction during regular business hours.There are some exceptions to this requirement.Generally, information that is considered personal or confidential cannot be released.State agencies can charge fees to cover the cost of record search and copying.Each agency is supposed to designate the person(s) who are authorized to release records for inspection, copying or mechanical reproduction.
Accessibility of Open Records
The Oklahoma Open Records Act does not directly address the issue of providing records in accessible formats as needed by persons with disabilities.However, the state Electronic and Information Accessibility law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II can improve the availability of accessible public records.
Title II of the ADA affects state and local governments.Regulations for Title II can be found at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/reg2.html.The Title II regulations do not specify alternate formats or methods of communication that an agency must use, but instead set forth a more general requirement that a public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others (Title II rules, Subpart E).Where a modification for accessibility, including communication access, creates an undue financial or administrative burden or when it would result in a fundamental change in the nature of the service, the agency may be excused from making that particular adjustment.More information on how ADA Title II rules may be interpreted, see the Title II ADA Technical Assistance Manual, II-7.0000 on Communications at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/taman2.html#II-7.1000.
Even though the ADA has now been in effect for over 15 years, many state and local agencies remain unprepared to respond to requests for information in accessible formats.If an agency does not have the information you need in your preferred format, it may be helpful to give the agency information on the appropriate sections of ADA rules, and also to give the agency practical information on how alternate formats can be produced or obtained.If you cannot obtain voluntary compliance with the ADA Title II, a complaint can be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.Find complaints forms at:
Complaints should be sent to the U.S.Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Disability rights Section - NYAV, Washington DC 20530.
The accessibility of the information technology used by state agencies to make public documents available may also be an issue.The Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Act became law in 2004.Modeled after Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, this state law requires agencies to make their websites and computer and telecommunications technologies accessible to persons with disabilities.Rules and standards implementing this law can be found at http://www.accessibility.ok.gov/.
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