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FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests are at the heart and soul of investigative journalism. They are the primary method through which citizens can exercise their rights to know: the right to know what’s in the bills the government passes, the right to know what property the government is seizing, the right to know the results of police investigations, and so forth.
Sometimes, FOIA requests can be difficult and cumbersome to file (Imagine that–the government wants to make it hard for you to learn its secrets!), which may discourage citizens new to the process. The Citizen Watchdog team is always here to help you file any request you want, but today only, citizens have a special opportunity to have professional “muckrakers” do the dirty work of investigation on their behalf.
MuckRock.com, an online community dedicated to open government through FOIA investigations, is taking public records requests from citizens today, in honor of the recently deceased Aaron Swartz, a leader in the transparency movement. Anyone who fills out this simple form today will have their FOIA request filed directly by the experts at MuckRock, free of charge.
This is a great chance to get your feet with in the world of FOIA. Although MuckRock’s form is much simpler than the one you would have to file with the government if you pursued a request on your own, it asks for similar information: the type of documents you want, the agency that the request should be sent to, and the government (local, state, or federal) the request should be processed through. After MuckRock files your request, they will keep you updated on its progress, allowing you to track a FOIA request from beginning to end.
Although MuckRock suggests you have fun with your request (for example, asking for “emails” from the Roosevelt Administration), you may want to ask for a record in your city or state, especially if you’ve been working on an investigation lately. Has the government seized property in your area recently? FOIA it. Interested in seeing the emails exchanged between state legislators during last year’s budget negotiations? Ask away. Want to run a quick background check on a local politician? Send a request to the sheriff’s office to see if he has an arrest record.
Swartz, the MuckRock activist in whose honor your requests will be filed, passed away recently at the age of 27. He is described as leaving a “legacy of agitation,” having requested, among others, the death photos of Osama bin Laden, the records of disgraced Pfc. Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks fame, and documents relating to controversial ICE server seizures.
Any day is a great day to promote transparency and investigate the powerful. But a day when experts will file any records request you have, free of charge? That’s a golden opportunity that’s not to be missed.
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