The U.S. Freedom of Information Act and state- and local-level “sunshine” laws are a wonderful thing. In theory.

In practice, I’m shocked — shocked — to learn, local government officials don’t take too kindly to being held accountable by the citizens they represent.

Unlike journalists and other professionals who are accostomed to navigating the bureaucratic process of obtaining information from bureaucracies, ordinary citizens interested in what their governments are up to have a lot more trouble prying records from public filing cabinets, as the Sarasota (Florida) Herald Tribune reports:

Tampa writer Terry Neal … said that during the ordeal over the past few months, he’s seen journalists given quick access to records.

“I’m always asked, ‘Who are you with.’ Since I’m not a reporter I get treated differently,” Neal said. “It’s like, ‘Citizen? Go home.’”

Lillian Stringer, public relations director for the Tampa Housing Authority and its records custodian, said she is familiar with Neal.

“I’ve seen every e-mail he has sent to our staff, and he’s also sent his requests to CNN, NPR, HUD, the president, their mothers and cousins,” she said. “I told him we had them and please advise me a date and time to view them, but I never got a response back.”

The anecdote is part of a set of stories the Herald Tribune is running today about Florida’s public records law. Freedom of Information legislation and the excellent investigative journalism it facilitates are some of the most positive aspects of American public life.

As the Herald Tribune notes, public records are an important source for investigative journalism. Without unwillingly released documents, the only sort of information that enters the public sphere from state bureaucracies are official releases and internal dissenters’ leaks. In other words, selectively-revealed information that serves someone’s political strategy — otherwise known as “strategic communications” or “spin”. It’s always a bit sad when British media have to get their Washington correspondents to file FoIA requests to glean information through the American government that Whitehall would never (be forced to) reveal.

The newspaper helpfully explains how citizens can use Florida’s sunshine law, and warns that personal data becomes a public record every time you interact with a state bureaucracy.