My Lawyer, Myself: Suing the government for access to info, pro se
Inside well-funded newsrooms, investigative reporters can usually turn to company lawyers for help with stalled public records requests. But independent freelancers don’t have that luxury, and many can’t afford to hire legal counsel on their own. So when the time comes to stop asking the government for public records and start demanding them, what can a low-to-no budget freelancer without legal counsel do?
To start, it’s possible to act as your own attorney and sue for access to information without the benefit of legal counsel—a tactic called pro se representation. Over the past few years, as the U.S. economy has taken a nosedive, more and more people have elected to save on legal fees by representing themselves in court. “It’s generally a bad idea for people to represent themselves in court, period,” said Geoff King, Northern California’s SPJ FOI committee co-chair and a former staff attorney for the First Amendment Project. King, ever the comedian, quoted an adage to me via e-mail: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Still, when it comes to FOIA-related lawsuits, there are plenty of resources out there to prevent pro se litigants from looking silly.
Tools like Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws 2010, a comprehensive 711-page guide to access laws, make it relatively simple to get a good idea where to start when assembling a knowledge base about all things related to FOIA suits. The book, which is updated every two years, covers everything from case law to filing fees. FOIA-specific complaints, which can be modified and used as templates, are readily available at sites like the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government (FLAG) Project. The FOIA Project, a searchable database of FOIA-related filings compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) and Document Cloud, links to hundreds of court documents from FOIA suits.