By Eben Wragge-Keller
Plenty of sex, drugs, and rock and roll came out of the 1960s, but so did one of the most important laws for journalists.
The Freedom of Information Act, enacted on Independence Day of 1966, has become an essential tool for citizens arming themselves with knowledge, and journalists getting their facts straight. With the federal law in mind, states have followed suit, passing their own freedom of information laws. Montana Code Annotated provides access to documents and records ranging from property tax information to jail rosters.
Ten years ago, a statewide compliance check conducted by Montana news organizations found discrepancies and confusions when auditors asked for state or county records, particularly in cases involving law enforcement.
To see if things had improved, the Montana Journalism Review (MJR) sent two staff members to Mineral County to seek documents guaranteed by the law as public. Designer Eben Wragge-Keller and photographer Tommy Martino followed the instructions used in the 2003 audit to a tee: They introduced themselves as members of the public rather than as journalists, to check if county employees would ask for their names and the reasons for their request. Montana law does not require citizens to provide that information.
This time around, a Mineral County official was ready to release the jail roster, with one catch: She withheld the birth dates of the incarcerated, making it harder to verify the identity of suspects with very common names.
When our team contacted the Freedom of Information (FOI) Hotline about the omission, it discovered a gray area that’s frequently overlooked: Though a Montana Supreme Court rule has been revoked that considered birth dates to be confidential, some agencies still withhold or redact that information, FOI Hotline lawyer Mike Meloy said, adding that a case could be made for the confidentiality of that data.
The spot check in Superior had another lesson in store for the MJR team: Not all counties in the state provide their public records on the Web. A website that claimed access to jail rosters across Montana turned out to be a scam.