Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sunshine week and the celebration of open records

 Happy Sunshine Week everyone!

In honor of Sunshine Week (and supporting open records in general,) a group of local, experienced reporters and editors have formed a Freedom of Information committee and are in the process of dreaming up ideas to better help you and everyone you know understand more about open records.

Just in time for Sunshine Week, a national effort to educate the public on the importance of open records, a local editor has created a state open records blog that will hopefully help you learn more about public records, make FOI requests and hold your public officials accountable.

Creator of the open records blog and the Middletown Press editor Viktoria Sundqvist said it best:

As most reporters know, anyone in Connecticut can walk into a government office and ask to see a copy of a public document. But not every member of the public knows that. And not everyone knows what constitutes a public document, or what agency to approach to get it.

In honor of Sunshine Week this week, staff from the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press and The Register Citizen have formed an informal Freedom of Information Committee, which will work to help staff and the public get better at accessing open records.

Here are some blog highlights:

* We will create a spreadsheet where every FOI request a reporter or editor makes will be entered so they can be tracked. This will be viewable by the public

* We will rate towns and agencies with "sunshines"

* Classes in FOI and open records will be offered to staff and the public

Committee members include Middletown Press Editor Viktoria Sundqvist (@vsundqvist), Register Citizen reporter Ricky Campbell (@RickyCampbellRC), New Haven Register Community Engagement Editor Angi Carter (@ReachAngi), New Haven Register reporter Alex Sanders (@ASanders88), New Haven Register sports reporter Chris Hunn (@Chris_Hunn), Investigations Editor Michelle Tuccitto Sullo (@NHRinvestigate), Topics Editor Mary O’Leary (@nhrmoleary), Asst. Managing Editor for Disruption Chris March (@LouderCMarch) and Graphics Mastermind Ann Dallas (@NHRdallas).

If you have any questions, suggestions or issues related to FOI, you can email the entire group here at

So, everyone go get your FOIing on, and together, we can make the world a more public place!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Freedom of Information Class ... for free!

If you haven't learned enough from reading my blog and undergoing your own FOI trials and tribulations, look no further. The Poynter Institute, "a news university"is offering a free class that will tell you everything you need or want to know about Freedom of Information and records laws.

Here, Poynter describes the course:

Freedom of information is instrumental to journalism and essential for democracy. This course teaches you how to use the Freedom of Information Act, Public Records Laws and Open Meetings Laws to uphold your right to know the government's actions. Learn not only the details of FOI laws in your state, but how to use FOI to write better stories today. This course will teach you how to determine if something is a public document and how to access it if it is.

Upon completing this course, you will be able to:
  • Use the federal Freedom of Information Act to request information.
  • Obtain public records and attend meetings under state-level Sunshine Laws.
  • Use documents to drive your newsroom.
  • See how others have used FOI to write better stories.
  • Use the Web to find more information about FOI laws in your state.
There you have it. It is something I would recommend even for those who don't anticipate ever having to make an FOI request. You'd be surprised, you likely will have to make at least one in your life if you want to get involved in anything.

Here is the link for more info:

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Hi there,

Thanks for stopping by this Freedom of Information blog, where hopefully, many of your questions about your right to know will be answered.

Recently, I attended a fellowship hosted by the New England Freedom of Information Coalition and I have compiled a list of resources that I acquired from more than 30 incredibly knowledgeable journalists and media law attorneys during my three-day stay, which I hope you will use in your search for information.

If you have any resources, tips or stories to share, please don't hesitate to contact me at

Thank you and happy information hunting!


Thursday, February 2, 2012

The First Amendment and protected speech

MADISON — A fired police officer who filed a federal lawsuit against the town and several police officials in 2009 can proceed with a trial because of a recent U.S. District Court decision to deny the town’s summary judgment to dismiss the case.

Ex-police officer Rebecca Ricciuti filed the suit in 2009, accusing the defendants of violating her First Amendment right to freedom of speech by firing her for calling public attention to a “pervasive pattern of police misconduct.” She, along with another member of the Police Department, developed an overtime matrix that accused the department of wasting $106,000 on overtime payments on senior officers who were looking to “pad their pensions.”

The lawsuit names the town, former Police Department leader Robert Nolan and Commissioners Garry Gyzenis, Emile Geisenheimer, David Smith, Lawrence Moon and Edward Kritzman.

Ricciuti, who was fired just a year-and-a-half after she was hired, is seeking no less than $1.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The court memorandum states that the cause of Ricciuti’s termination remains unclear.

During her brief tenure in the department, Ricciuti was the subject of an internal affairs investigation that delved into her “giving out information about what she thought was an abuse of overtime” by higher-ranking officers. She also allegedly discussed matters she believed to be of public concern such as “unlawfully interrogating juveniles, inadequate police training, mismanagement of personnel and mismanagement of evidence.”

The recent court memorandum said “the record is murky as to the reason Ms. Ricciuti’s internal affairs investigation was launched.”

This past summer, the town filed a summary judgment to dismiss the case and Ricciuti’s attorney, Kelly Rommel, filed a motion of opposition to that. About three weeks ago, the court dismissed the three arguments made by the town in a 28-page memorandum.

The town argued that Ricciuti’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment because it was made as a private employee addressing a workplace issue, she would have been fired even if she hadn’t spoken out and her speech was “more disruptive than valuable.” They also argued that their conduct was not prohibited by law at the time of Ricciuti’s firing.

“According to the defendants, this case was brought by a complaining, often insubordinate probationary officer who thought she knew better than her superiors how to run the department. Ms. Ricciuti maintains that she was retaliated against for speaking out as a citizen on a matter of public concern,” the memorandum stated.

The court found that because Ricciuti’s actions were of her own initiative and conducted mostly outside of work, because they did not concern her duties as a police officer, because she was acting like a “regular citizen” and because it was addressed to the public, she was speaking as a citizen, not an employee, and therefore is protected by the First Amendment.
According to Rommel, the town has since filed a motion to reconsider the summary judgment and she has filed an opposition to that. The court now has to rule on the motion for reconsideration and the defendants will have the opportunity to appeal.

“I believe that the right decision has been made,” said Rommel. “We look forward to going to trial so that Rebecca’s wrongful termination can be exposed.”

Attorney Scott Karsten, who is representing the town, said, “In essence, we are saying that this decision was made in 2009, when the law in respect to First Amendment protections for government employees was anything but settled.

“It is hard to understand how the Board of Police Commissioners in Madison can be faulted for acting as they did in such a legal vacuum, in an area where the law continues even today to be evolving and unpredictable.

“The individual defendants ought to be entitled to the qualified immunity available to protect government decision-makers from legal liability for their discretionary actions; that is exactly the purpose of the doctrine.”

Quinnipiac University law professor Jeffrey Meyer said Tuesday that Riccitui’s dispute is very common and similar issues have come up in the past.

“What the First Amendment struggled to do was reconcile core values of free speech with the fact that the government has to have control over how employees act,” he said. “It’s really a multi-factor test that governs these kinds of actions.”

During a trial, a jury will have to decide whether Ricciuti’s protected speech led to her termination, whether the Police Department would have fired her in absence of her actions and whether the value of her protected speech outweighed the disruption it would have caused to the proper functioning of the police department.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How to get public information about a private company, or, my latest FOIA adventure

I know what you're thinking. Public information pertains to, well, um, public entities. That is true, but there are ways to get public information from a private company in some cases too. I'm not talking about an inside source sneaking you secret documents. I am talking about sending an email (or letter via snail mail) and publicly requesting information.

I am working on a story about a private organization (which I won't name here because the story is not yet complete) and was looking for information pertaining to their licensing records, which are public. Within four business days, the records I requested were sitting in my Inbox.

The lesson here? If any private company has any kind of licensing through the state, that information is likely public. Be aware that the licensing information may not contain what you are looking for, but know that you have access to it.

Also, make sure you aren't fooled. It isn't as simple as you trying to file a request under FOIA and someone in the company saying "Sorry, can't use FOIA with us. We're private."

*click ... dialtone*

Then you give up and move on, right?

Not so fast.

If their licensing is not through the state then find out how much funding the company receives from the state or if the state is involved in any aspect of their operations. If the state plays a large part in their business operations in one way or another, there may be more public information available to you than you know about.

Stay tuned for more FOIA trials and tribulations and remember, if you have stories to share, questions or comments, email me at

Monday, November 28, 2011

Crash course on FOI

Do you want to learn more about investigative reporting, story tips and freedom of information but you don't feel like scrolling through this blog or my power point? No worries, tune in tomorrow (Tuesday, Nov. 29 at 2 p.m.) to watch me explain why FOI is important and show you how much dirt you can dig up on the Internet.

If you want to volunteer, I'll see how much information is available about you on the Internet. Don't worry, I won't peak at your wish list.

If you have any questions or comments after the presentation, feel free to contact me at


or watch here:

How to get the real story: Freedom of Information facts and tips