Freedom of Information: A citizen's guide to fighting secret government

Local and national organizations that offer a wide range of resources for journalists, citizen activists, and hell-raisers
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San Francisco has the best local sunshine law in the country — and there are still problems getting access to information. Even though the digital age in which we live affords government agencies with myriad ways to give citizens more access to public documents, there is too often little official will to create transparency. And often, bureaucrats are downright hostile to public scrutiny. But help is out there. This guide to local and national organizations offers a wide range of resources for journalists, citizen activists, and hell-raisers who want to track their tax money and hold their government accountable.

LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS

The California First Amendment Coalition is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to "promote and defend the people's right to know" by improving compliance with state and federal access laws. CFAC's Web site contains an archive of articles dealing with FOI issues, the texts of state FOI laws, and other useful resources. 534 Fourth St., Suite B, San Raphael, CA 94901. (415) 460-5060, cfac@cfac.org, www.cfac.org.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association is the umbrella organization to which most newspapers in the state belong, so it has an acute interest in open government. Its FOI Watch newsletter (also available online) includes a clearinghouse of sunshine news from around the state. 708 Tenth St., Sacramento, CA 95814. (916) 288-6015, tom@cnpa.com (general counsel Thomas Newton), www.cnpa.com.

Californians Aware, run by former CFAC general counsel Terry Francke, helps activists and organizations get access to public meetings and records and offers resources on the Web for citizens, public officials, journalists, and attorneys. 2218 Homewood Way, Carmichael, CA 95608. (916) 487-7000, info@calaware.org, www.calaware.org.

The Center for Investigative Reporting sponsors workshops on investigative techniques for journalists and university students. The center's Web-based magazine provides FOI information, tips for journalists, and updates on past CIR investigations. 2927 Newbury St., Suite A, Berkeley, CA 94703. (510) 809-3160, center@cironline.org, www.muckraker.org.

The DataCenter provides on-call research, consultation, and referrals to justice organizations regarding FOI issues. It also offers research and action training. Services are free or on a sliding scale, depending on one's ability to pay. 1904 Franklin St., Suite 900, Oakland, CA 94612. (510) 835-4692, ext. 376, www.datacenter.org.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online First Amendment organization, works to uphold digital free speech, empower the online public, and protect privacy on the Internet. It provides stories and alerts on its Web site, with daily updates. Effector, an e-mail newsletter, is available through the site. 454 Shotwell St., S.F., CA 94110. (415) 436-9333, information@eff.org, www.eff.org.

The First Amendment Project is a public interest law firm that provides legal representation, educational programs, and low-cost or free advice for journalists, public interest organizations, and individual citizens with public records and FOI-related issues. In a joint publication effort with the Society of Professional Journalists, the project offers three free pocket guides, on the Brown Act, California's Open Meeting Law, and accessing court records. The Web page has information on using the California Public Records Act as well as on getting court records. 1736 Franklin St., 9th floor, Oakland, CA 94612.