March 14, 2011

How to Use Your Right to Know

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“Freedom of information” legislation grants public access to records pertaining to government agencies. With a few exceptions, including internal files, personal records and ongoing police investigations, a wide variety of information is available under these laws.

When formulating a request, the more specific, the better. Effective FOI requests should clearly identify the level of government, office and individual officials who are likely to control the information the requester is seeking. Including a specific date range in which the records can be found will also increase the request’s effectiveness. Several websites — such the Student Press Law Center, at, and — have developed forms for citizens to easily file freedom of information requests online.

At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, allows access to agency records, with the exception of certain specific types of sensitive information. For example, last year The Sun used FOIA to obtain Federal Bureau of Investigations documents dealing with Cornell University, uncovering a federal investigation into communist accusations against the University in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the city and state level, the New York State Freedom of Information Law grants access to city and state records, including police data, lobbying documents and some departmental communication. The Sun has used FOIL to obtain police records of closed investigations into several student deaths over the past year.

Today’s technology has exponentially increased the amount of information available online, so citizens seeking information often do not have to file a FOIA or FOIL request. The Department of Education posts information about federal financial aid at colleges nationwide, including Cornell. The NCAA requires that the University post retention and graduation rates of collegiate athletes. The University’s tax information from the form 990 is released. All court cases completed or currently open against the University are also made public. For unpublished information, FOIL and FOIA require that government agencies disseminate documents electronically, if possible. Requests that require photocopying usually take longer to be completed, and are accompanied by a minimal fee for production costs.

At institutions of higher education, freedom of information is important for student journalists, their readers and even some faculty conducting research. While government openness has improved in recent decades, and President Barack Obama, shortly after he took office, pledged his commitment to streamlining the FOIA process, there is still significant progress to be made towards increasing transparency. On the Hill, the University is exempt from FOIL requests, so the law does not require administrators to be transparent regarding the same types of issues about which the City of Ithaca and New York State are required to provide information. As we move forward into a technologically-driven future where reams of information are available at the click of a button, we hope that citizens and students will pressure government and university institutions to be more open about operations that affect the public interest.