Ignorance of laws on records, meetings called recipe for trouble
By Dan Chase
Knowing of and understanding how to use the federal Freedom of Information Act and similar Utah laws are important for journalists if they want to become successful, Deseret News staff writer Don Baker said in a lecture Monday afternoon.
"You (journalists) need to know the law better than anybody else," Baker told students and faculty in the Eccles Conference Center. "If you don't know the law, they'll take advantage of you, I promise."
One of the laws journalists need to know is the Utah open meeting law, Baker said.
The law, which was established in 1978, distinguishes three types of public meetings: legal, legally closed and illegal.
Baker said the former occurs when announcement of the meeting is given 24 hours prior, when an agenda is published and when records of what was said and done are kept.
In addition, Baker outlined five reasons for the legal closure of meetings: for the discussion of 1) an individual's health or competence, 2) labor negotiations, 3) warrants and security matters, 4) purchase or sale of property and 5) investigative proceedings regarding criminal conduct. Baker said if the public or press is not allowed into a meeting that does not meet these conditions it is illegal.
In addition, Baker said journalists need to be careful about discussed items that do not appear on a meeting's agenda. The presiding authority can discuss it with the public, but cannot vote on it, he said.
Baker also said to watch out for so-called "pre-meetings," when an informal meeting is held usually minutes before the public arrives. If minutes are not kept, a "pre-meeting" is an illegal meeting, Baker said.
Baker was joined mid-lecture by Joel Campbell, who also works at The Deseret News.
Campbell told students and faculty of the importance of using Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act as a resource.
Otherwise known as GRAMA, the act allows access to many records. Often, these records are illegally kept from the public because many people don't understand what's an open record and what's not, Campbell said.
"The public doesn't understand the laws," Campbell said. "But (as a journalist), you can use the law to uncover something.
"If the press is to fulfill its First Amendment obligation to keep the public fully informed about the government, it must be able to gather news," added Campbell.
Questions regarding the Freedom of Information Act or GRAMA may be answered by calling the Utah Freedom of Information Hotline (1-800-574-4546; 532-7840 inside the Salt Lake City area). The hotline welcomes calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Archived Months:September 1998