Last week, FIRE released the results of our survey of the Facebook and Twitter settings of public universities and colleges. These records, obtained through state public records laws, revealed the extent to which some 198 institutions are censoring content and blocking users on their official social media accounts.
Asking for these records is a simple process and may serve as a useful introduction to public records for student journalists — or, for those who already have experience with them, a useful exercise in transparency. FIRE is sharing a copy of the language our requests used, which can be easily replicated for your public university or for other government entities. (And even if your institution was already one of the 200-some we scanned, it may be worth requesting the records again, as your institution’s settings may have changed.)
Here’s how to request the Facebook and Twitter settings from your own institution.
First, it’s useful to get a background on your state’s public records laws. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains a useful guide to each state’s public records laws. Knowing what records are accessible, and what exceptions there are, makes it easier to frame a request that is less likely to be rejected.
Second, you’ll want to identify your institution’s records custodian — that is, the person or office that handles public records requests. Many institutions list them on their website or in their policies; if not, you can usually direct a request to the general counsel or public relations office.
Third, draft a request using the language below, or using the Student Press Law Center’s helpful public records letter generator. To replicate our request, you’ll need to replace some of the language below, in particular the web addresses for your institution’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Fourth, when you send your request, keep track of when you sent it, as many states have a deadline to provide an initial response. That deadline doesn’t always mean that the agency has to provide the records by that deadline, but most states require them to acknowledge your request or tell you whether they plan to provide the records.
If they refuse or fail to produce the records, be prepared to appeal. If there’s no formal appeal process, consider informally asking a higher-up at your institution — like the president or chancellor — to reconsider the denial, explaining why transparency is important or why their interpretation of the open records law is misplaced. (Some examples of our own informal appeals — with varying degrees of success — can be found here and here.) If your state provides an ombudsman or independent agency for an appeal, consider going that route.
If you get a response (or if you encounter a stone wall), we’d be interested in learning what you uncover. Please feel free to send your stories or questions to FOIA@thefire.org. And, as always, if you encounter censorship or threats to your rights on campus, get in touch with FIRE to see if we can help.
A template public records request:
The following is a lightly edited version of the request sent to Michigan State University:
This is a request for records pursuant to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §§ 15.231 et seq.). If you are not the records custodian for MSU, please identify the correct person to contact.
This request seeks records relating to restrictions and settings concerning the official Facebook and Twitter accounts for MSU, and should be directed to the person responsible for operating those accounts.
I request the following records:
- A copy of the settings for the Facebook page maintained by Michigan State University (available at https://www.facebook.com/spartans.msu). This list is accessible by (A) logging into the Facebook page as an administrator, and then (B) clicking “Settings” at the top of the official page. The URL should look like: https://www.facebook.com/spartans.msu/settings/?tab=settings.
- A copy of the list of people or pages banned from the Facebook page referenced above. This list is accessible by: (A) logging into the Facebook page as an administrator, (B) clicking “Settings” at the top of the official page, (C) clicking “People and Other Pages” in the left column, and (D) selecting "Banned People and Pages" from the drop-down menu. The final URL should look like: https://www.facebook.com/spartans.msu/settings/?tab=people_and_other_pages.
- A list of the "blocked accounts" by the Twitter account maintained by Michigan State University (available at https://twitter.com/michiganstateu). This list is accessible by navigating to this URL while logged into the account: https://twitter.com/settings/blocked.
Fee waiver request: This request concerns a matter of public interest. The social media restrictions imposed by public institutions and officials — including the president, governors, and public universities — have been challenged on First Amendment grounds. This survey seeks to explore the extent to which public colleges and universities have similar restrictions.
The public interest would be well-served by granting a fee waiver. The request is not being sought for a commercial purpose, but is instead sought by a nonprofit organization to provide the public with information concerning the conduct of government actors as that conduct pertains to civil liberties in higher education.
If a fee waiver is not granted, please apprise me if the estimated costs will exceed $10.
Request for expedited processing: Completion of this survey depends on the institution with the slowest response time. We request that Michigan State University produce responsive records on an expedited basis. As you may be aware, a public body in Michigan has five business days to respond. (Mich. Comp. Laws. Ann § 15.235(2)).
Appeal information: If you deny any portion, or all, of this request, please provide me with a written explanation of the reason(s) for your denial, including a citation to each specific statutory exemption you believe justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law. If you conclude that portions of the records that I request are exempt from disclosure, please release the remainder of such records for inspection and copying, redacting only the portion or portions that you claim are exempt.