Whitman Alum on Freedom of Information Act

Sylvie Corwin, Staff Reporter

Alumnus Rachel Alexander returned to Whitman this past Thursday, Oct. 29 to share her talk entitled “How to Discover Government Secrets and Impress Your Date with the Public Records Act.”

Alexander worked for the Whitman Pioneer (now the Whitman Wire) for four years and continued working in the field of journalism after her graduation in 2013. She spent a year in Walla Walla at the Union-Bulletin, almost four years at the Spokesman-Review, and currently is one of four employees for the online publication the Salem Reporter.

“I use public records pretty much every day, whether it’s filing a request or just looking up something that’s been proactively posted online or appealing or whatever it is,” Alexander said. “And then I also work on a couple boards that deal with public records access issues, including the Washington Coalition for Open Government.”

Alexander has presented on public records to college journalists before, but never to a more general public.

“I think there’s this idea that you need to be some sort of expert or a lawyer or a reporter to get public records or that people just wouldn’t know where to start or who to ask or how to do it,” Alexander said. “And I hope to really break that down and say ‘Hey, this is actually pretty easy and a lot of the time it’s just the simple matter of sending an email or maybe making one phone call.’”

Her talk explained what information counts as public records and some of the exceptions. Jail population trends, discipline and weapon incidents in public schools, GIS maps or deportation records are just a few examples of information available through either the state Public Records Act (PRA) or the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“I think when you say ‘public records’ or ‘government documents’ that conjures up this image of a really dusty basement room full of file folders and stuff,” Alexander said. “And it’s 2018, public records can be spreadsheets, they can be videos, they can be police body camera footage. There’s all this stuff out there that we pay taxes to have people create and file and maintain that’s really our information.”

Alexander also explained how to ask for public records and some of the laws in place in Washington surrounding the PRA. These laws require that organizations respond to a request for public records within five days, prohibit organizations from charging people fees for the time spent searching for records, and generally work to keep public records easily accessible.

“People don’t realize how much these laws underlie the reporting they rely on for information or the nonprofit they support or the advocacy group they support,” Alexander said. “[For example] the ACLU uses public records all the time to file lawsuits or to find out what’s going on and look at issues that they’re keeping an eye on.”

Junior Holden Gaupo attended the talk at the suggestion of Politics professor Susanne Beechey.

“I don’t have any plans to go off and file Freedom of Information requests, but it’s certainly good information to have, or tools to have,” Gaupo said.

Guapo, a Politics major, has a passion for government data and worked as the Community Development Block Grant intern in Walla Walla over the summer — a job which required a lot of data analysis.

“It’s important to have transparency in our government so we can be informed citizens,” Gaupo said. “If in the future I’m interested in government data [the PRA and FOIA] is a way to go about getting it.”

While Gaupo was not required to attend Alexander’s talk, Beechey required all her Introduction to US Politics students to come to the presentation.

Sophomore Laska Fitzhugh is a student in Introduction to US Politics. Throughout the semester, her class has discussed the ways government is held accountable and public records adds to this accountability.

“Before the talk I honestly didn’t even know someone could request records like what Rachel was describing,” Fitzhugh said. “I had heard of the Freedom of Information Act but I never really thought about what it meant or what it would allow me to do.”

Fitzhugh was surprised by how much everyday information, such as survey data or information on public or government organizations, comes from public records requests.

“I definitely will find a reason to use public records in the future, it’s a very cool resource to have,” Fitzhugh said. “I think public records would have been immensely useful for any number of school projects I have had in the past.”

Alexander’s visit to Walla Walla for this presentation was the first time she had returned for non-social reasons since she left her job at the Union-Bulletin.

“I’m excited to just be contributing something back to campus and hopefully helping these journalists and just members of the public… [to] have another tool in their toolbox to make a difference,” Alexander said.

This isn’t the only reason Alexander was excited to come back to Walla Walla.

“I am legit most excited for a veggie torta at Graze because there’s no Graze anywhere I’ve lived since, and that breaks my heart because the Graze veggie torta is the single best food on Earth,” Alexander said.