Asking nicely not getting it done? Try threatening to file an FOIA lawsuit

Lots of journalists think it's better to ask nicely for public documents when filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with government officials than demanding the documents and threatening to sue if they aren't turned over forthwith.

Well, a University of Arizona professor says his study suggests that it can often be more effective to start with the reminder that FOIA requestors have the option of filing lawsuits when documents that are supposedly available to the public aren't provided promptly by game-playing bureaucrats and elected public officials.

“I always thought you attract more flies with honey than vinegar, but that's not the case here," Cuillier told UA News. “Unfortunately, many of our public agencies won't follow the law unless you threaten to sue, and even then many will outright ignore you.”

Cullier's study is available online in the latest edition of Communication Law and Policy and is summarized thusly by Informaworld. Note the caveat about which approach produces more helpful behavior from agency officials:

“Freedom of information laws are useful to the extent that they are followed. This study, based on compliance-gaining theories, employs two field experiments to examine the effect of persuasion tactics and litigation threats on agency adherence to public records laws.

“In Study 1, a journalist requested use-of-force reports from all police agencies in a state, mailing agencies either friendly or threatening letters, randomly assigned.

“In Study 2, a journalist requested superintendent contracts from school districts, mailing agencies randomly assigned versions of friendly, neutral or threatening letters.

“In both experiments the threatening letter resulted in slightly higher response rates, lower copy fees and faster response times, however, the friendly letter resulted in more helpful behavior from agencies.

“The article concludes by discussing implications for journalists, compliance-gaining theory in a legal realm, and freedom of information.”

HT: Alice Lucan, Newslaw

 

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