Let the sunshine, let the sunshine (request) in!

I hope you’re all singing The Fifth Dimension now. Feel free to do a little dance to accompany it, backed by some great green screen action:

*P.S. I grew up on TFD. Don’t judge; just groove.

Tonight I submitted my first ever Sunshine Request. For journalists not in Missouri and non-journalists everywhere, here’s a little explanation of what these are. Hint: they have to do with getting information from the government that the government sometimes doesn’t want the “common folk” to have. It’s pretty freakin’ awesome, really, and reminds you of the importance and coolness of the First Amendment.

If the First Amendment were a 1970s sitcom character, it would for sure be the Fonze. Aaaay.

In Missouri we have what is called the Sunshine Law, which means that journalists (or editors, like me) can submit requests for public documents to different public offices, such as the police department. The law itself states that all meetings, votes, deliberations, actions and records are open to the public. Missouri is one of the few states that has one of these laws.

Now, over the summer I worked in Illinois for The Chicago Reporter, where there is no Sunshine Law. If we wanted to get records not readily available to us, we had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request, which is a lot more concise and a lot easier for the agency or office in question to reject or ignore. It also has a far longer deadline; Missouri sunshine requests have to come back to the filer in three business days, but FOIAs have five business days or more if it meets one of the many “extension criteria.” FOIA also states that the information will not be granted if it’s going to be used to further a commercial enterprise, violate individual privacy or disrupt the day-to-day routine of the public agency or body from which the information comes, i.e. good luck getting information from any Illinois public body.*

*And then you wonder why we have so many Illinois governors in jail. Welcome to the 21st state.

So now that you have that background, you understand why filling out my first Sunshine Request is kind of a big deal. I’ll be writing a more extensive post about why I wrote it once the story comes out, but for now, here’s some things I learned about how to submit of these handy-dandy forms:

  1. You’re not required to submit a print copy, but just to be an overachiever, you still should, even if it means bolting across downtown at 4:30 p.m.
  2. Make sure you tell the recipient that this is a Sunshine Request, rather than an inquiry to find out whether your potential request is worthwhile.
  3. Be as concise as possible in the wording; adding exclusions and dates are a huge way to get exactly what you want. Also make sure you delineate what information you want and why you want it so they might waive the finders’ fee.
  4. Be kind and borderline-conversational in the email you send with the request attached. It’ll keep you on the good side of whoever is filling it, which means faster answers.
  5. “3 Business Days” refers to the amount of time the agency has to get back to you with information on what documents you’ll be receiving. I got a response 20 minutes later. It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but that’s 2 days, 23 hours and 40 minutes more that I have to figure out the next step.

You may resume singing “Let the Sunshine In” now.


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