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From the Editor’s Desk: This Sunshine Week, take advantage of your freedom of information

Matt Mynes // Photo Editor
Papers stock photo

It’s safe to say that we are all familiar with our freedom of speech in the United States. And thanks to our freedom of the press, newspapers everywhere are able to freely publish the news. One freedom you may not be aware of, though, is your freedom of information.
Thanks to a federal Freedom of Information law and individual laws in all fifty states, members of the public are allowed to obtain documents and other public records from government bodies. Government bodies include groups ranging from your hometown’s city council to a local police department. It also includes public universities like Clemson.
Public records include all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings or other documentary material regardless of physical form or characteristics that is prepared, owned, used, in the possession of or retained by a public body, says the South Carolina Press Association.
The transparency provided by these public records laws allows citizens to know how their public officials are performing in their taxpayer-funded positions and how they are spending the public’s funds.
Public records laws also fuel investigative journalism, like the work we have done on the Kappa Alpha hazing investigation. Without access to the original police reports, there would have been no way to find out that the rumors spreading across campus were in fact true.
These laws, referred to as Sunshine laws, also provide the public with open access to attend government meetings and an expectation that official business will occur with the public in the room.
Submitting a Freedom of Information Act request
The process to submit a request can seem daunting, but it is rather easy.
First, consider calling, emailing or visiting the government body to see if they will provide the information to you without a formal request.
If that does not work, you can submit a written request. There is no one form to submit a request with, nor is there any set format. All you need to do is ask for what you want, in writing, and mention the words “Freedom of Information Act.”
Make sure to be specific in what you ask for. In South Carolina, a government body may charge fees to search, redact and copy records for you, but does not have to. The more specific your request is, the less likely you will be asked to pay a fee upfront.
Once you hit submit, the starts the clock. Government bodies must respond to a written request in a timely manner, but no longer than 10 business days unless the records are more than 2 years old, which extends the deadline to 20 business days.
Then, once your request is acknowledged as being accepted or denied, the government body must provide the records within 30 calendar days from the date it responds to your request.
There are certain records that government bodies do not need to disclose, and other records that they must provide without a formal request. For more information, visit the South Carolina Press Association’s website.
Celebrating Sunshine Week across the nation
Starting next week on March 12 is Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to promote open, transparent government across the United States.
It is your right to know, so why not find out?
David Ferrara is a senior economics and philosophy major from Shelton, Connecticut. David can be reached at [email protected].

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