Column: Make use of the information at your fingertips

In light of the recent uprising in Egypt, I am once again reminded that in the U.S., the government is held accountable by its people.

This is primarily done through voting, and the threat of rebellion if a government does not hold up its end of the social contract.

But newspapers play a role as well. The media is responsible, in part, in maintaining government transparency. Our money supports public bodies, so citizens should know what they are doing.

A Daily Eastern News reporter has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any information regarding thefts at the University Bookstore this academic year.

Any information about these thefts, besides the date they occurred, is not readily available from the University Police Department because it is an ongoing investigation.

This string of thefts is important for students to know about, beyond any normal curiosity.

People have a right to know about any crime that occurs in their community.

Large public bodies, such as Eastern, typically have one individual designated and trained to process the FOIA requests. Robert Miller is Eastern’s FOIA officer.

Under the Freedom of Information Act the public is entitled to “full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.”

Sunshine Laws, like the FOIA, vary in stringency by state but they essentially require meetings, decisions and records to be made available to the public.

Illinois now has some of the most easily accessible public records, after the legislature passed the new procedures for FOIA in January 2010.

Under the FOIA, people have access to a variety of information from any public body including records, forms and salaries of public employees.

With all this information at our fingertips I can only wonder why we are not using this new tool to its fullest potential.

Looking back on previous generations compared to my own, I can only wonder “what happened?”

Forty years ago, people my age were lobbying their politicians, lighting the American flag on fire to prove a point and marching in the streets. Now my generation complacently surfs the Internet.

A FOIA request is most often used by journalists, but anyone can submit a request online, in mail or in person to the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, or directly to a FOIA officer.

There is no format, but general guidelines are provided on the Illinois Attorney General’s website.

People have more power over their government than they often believe. Perhaps it is time they started using it.

Emily Steele is a senior journalism major. She can be reached at 581-2812

or [email protected]