The 1967 Freedom of Information Act codified the right of the public to request access to records and meetings from federal government agencies. FOIA, which was adopted by the state of Connecticut in 1975, opened new avenues through which to gather information on our governing institutions. As a public entity, the University of Connecticut is bound by FOIA and students are thus granted access to records ranging from budget data to police reports to documentation of meetings.
In order to deliver thoughtful and provocative news coverage to UConn and beyond, The Daily Campus has often relied on FOIA for public records that tell a clearer story than documents that are hand-picked by the university administration to appear online. The utility of FOIA, however, extends well past student journalism. We believe that all students and organizations interested in holding their leaders accountable should understand how and why to make public records requests.
Calling UConn a large institution would be an understatement; its multiplicity of departments and thousands of employees may make the task of finding records appear extremely complicated and cumbersome. And while this is absolutely true of communicating with university employees through email or over the phone where it is not uncommon to be tossed from department to department to solve one issue, FOIA makes accessing public records far more accessible than finding information by other means.
Students, journalists and curious community members may make FOIA requests through the UConn Public Records office’s website, where they can digitally file requests through an online form. Requesters must enter their email address and the range of time from which they want the documents gathered. There is no necessary reason to justify why you are seeking documents with information such as affiliation with an organization or requiring them for a project — public records must, per se, be public.
Be as specific as possible with the request details, making sure to include what kinds of records you are seeking and what departments they might originate from. Records encompass not just written documents, but emails, photographs and video recordings as well — this may be helpful when pursuing records from the UConn Police Department. Open-ended questions or vague requests are unlikely to garner results, meaning a minimum amount of research on where certain kinds of information might be found is recommended. At the same time, don’t be discouraged from making broad requests as long as you are specific with the precise nature of the information you’re looking for.
If unsure about your request, consult the Public Records office “frequently asked questions” page for direction. Requesters who don’t wish to do so through the form may reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to place a full request in writing. The Public Records office will typically respond within a business day, but the time it takes to compile and send records depends on the breadth and complexity of the request.
The potential of FOIA to produce timely and impactful information is immense. Documents produced by FOIA have revealed alarming developments such as UCPD militarization and surveillance as well as more banal, but nonetheless important information such as the nearly $1 million stream of revenue generated by parking fees in 2019.
FOIA precludes the need for conspiratorial thinking about UConn and its leadership — that is, when the information is readily available, community members can respond to injustices and inequalities within the university by pointing to its policies, expenses and communications instead of generating theories that can be falsified and delegitimized by the administration or board of trustees. Public records are one tool for advancing equity on an institutional, state and national level that every student should be aware of.