Portrait of Rachel Alexander

Written by

Rachael Alexander '13 knows a thing or two about government archives and public records. A journalist who covers the education and nonprofit beats for the Salem Reporter, Alexander is vice president for the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and serves on the board for the The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington.

Alexander will discuss "How to Discover Government Secrets and Impress Your Date with the Public Records Act" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, in Olin Auditorium. The event is free to attend and open to the general public.

During her talk, Alexander will explain the importance of public records access, how one can utilize these records, how to file a request, not to mention the zany things that can be discovered in government archives.

"It's not as hard as many people think. Washington has a strong open records law, and requesting public records isn't something only journalists and lawyers can do," Alexander said.

"In most cases, you can get what you need by Googling the agency or government body you're interested in and emailing their records officer, spokesperson or clerk. Tell them what you're looking for, and if you get stuck, reach out to a government transparency group like the Washington Coalition for Open Government for help."

The impetus for her talk came from a bill that Washington state legislators attempted to pass last year, and that would have exempted them from Public Records Act. This prompted thousands of Washingtonians to reach out to Gov. Jay Inslee and demand a veto.

Alexander affirmed that public records belong to the public. "As someone who pays taxes and is subject to the decisions of your local, state and federal government, you have a right to know what they're doing in your name," Alexander said.

Alexander shared these three essential nuggets everyone should know before they begin digging into government archives.

1. The preamble to Washington's Public Records Act states, "The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

2. Almost any interaction a private citizen or business has with the government produces a record, and most of those are public.

3. Public records laws cover a broad range of things. You can ask for emails, text messages and original spreadsheets.