Freedom of Information (FOI) advocates, mass communication scholars, journalists, and public policymakers often have asked which public access laws are the "best" in the country. The answer is elusive, even using a variety of research methodologies. Prior research has focused on studying only one aspect of these laws in the fifty states or by ranking every state on a limited number of criteria considered by a scholar to be necessary for an "ideal" law. No study thus far has effectively and systematically attempted to rank all state public records and open meeting laws in their entirety.
Assuming that the "best" public access law means the law that at least facially creates the highest level of government transparency, scholars can use a variety of research approaches to better understand which laws are perceived as "more open" than others. Indeed, by using a combination of social science and legal research approaches, scholars can achieve not only an improved understanding of how state laws compare, but also what the concept of "openness" means in state public record and open meetings laws. To this end, the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project (MBCAP) has implemented a long-term research project analyzing the access laws of all states by carefully combining social science methodology and traditional legal research techniques.
Although in its early stages, the MBCAP has already produced a unique methodological approach and significant data. In this Essay, the authors explain how the combination of social science and legal methodologies can effectively answer complex questions involving public access laws. Discussing the project's methodology could also be useful to legal and communication scholars wishing to develop and improve state law compilations in order to identify in greater detail public policy established by state legislatures and the courts. Furthermore, although the MBCAP so far has focused on aspects of state public records laws, the methodology presented here may be replicated or modified for other areas of law where ranking and comparison of multiple jurisdictions would be useful.
Now, after an overview of the problem statement set out here, the Essay provides background by reviewing the relevant literature in Part II. Part III outlines the objectives of the project and the methodology used to meet those objectives. It will also provide solutions to complex problems that arise in a study of the laws of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Part IV presents project results to demonstrate how state public records laws are being analyzed through use of the project. Part V concludes by discussing the practical and academic applications of the project as well as its limitations.
Bill F. Chamberlin, Cristina Popescu, Michael F. Weigold & Nissa Laughner, Searching For Patterns in the Laws Governing Access to Records and Meetings in the Fifty States by Using Multiple Research Tools, 18 U. Fla. J. . & Pub Pol'y 415 (2007), available at http://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/facultypub/325