30 Minute Skills: HIPAA and Public Records

The New England First Amendment Coalition recently launched a monthly educational series featuring short, practical lessons on journalism and the First Amendment.

The goal of the program — called “30 Minute Skills” — is to provide reporters and other citizens knowledge they can use immediately in newsgathering, data collection, storytelling and other areas of journalism and First Amendment law.

The lessons will be provided in a 30-minute format to accommodate the demanding schedules faced by many working in New England newsrooms. The program is free and open to the public. Registration for each lesson is required.

HIPAA and Public Records

June 16 | 12 p.m.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is one of the most misunderstood laws. Government officials and the general public often incorrectly cite the 25-year-old federal statute when discussing health data. During the last 16 months in particular, public agencies have improperly used HIPAA as a reason to withhold requested documents about COVID-19. Now, with reporting focused on vaccinations and the lifting of pandemic restrictions, misinformation about the law continues to circulate.

• The history and purpose of HIPAA.
• Under what circumstances and to what types of entities HIPAA applies.
• How to best respond to public record denials that are incorrectly attributed to HIPAA.

About Your Instructor

ADAM A. MARSHALL | Adam A. Marshall is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. His work at RCFP includes federal and state public records litigation, writing amicus briefs, and training journalists. Adam has been named a Forbes “30 Under 30” in Media for his work on promoting government transparency, including the development of the FOIA Wiki. His writings include a chapter on the federal Freedom of Information Act in Troubling Transparency (Columbia University Press, 2018), and a chapter on public records in COVID-19: The Legal Challenges (Carolina Academic Press, 2020). Adam has a J.D. from the George Washington University Law School. You can find his FOIA musings on Twitter at @a_marshall_plan.

Recent 30 Minute Skills

Data Visualization 101 | While there are encouraging signs that COVID-19 in New England is becoming less severe, telling stories using data will continue to be an important skill for journalists covering any beat. By viewing this lesson, you will learn (1) how to find and obtain reliable health data (2) how to create simple data visualizations using free online tools and (3) how to identify story ideas based on vaccination data.

Protecting Women Journalists | With newsrooms often lacking effective support systems, women journalists are regularly belittled, have their professionalism questioned and endure mistreatment strictly based on their gender. By viewing this lesson, you will learn about: (1) The types of threats currently facing women journalists (2) How to protect yourself from online trolling and (3) How to stay safe at protests and large demonstrations.

How to Respond to a Subpoena | For an increasing number of New England newsrooms without regular access to attorneys, these legal orders can be intimidating and infringe on the rights of local journalists. Taught by attorney Matthew Byrne of Gravel & Shea in Burlington, Vt., this lesson teaches you: (1) the history of subpoenas and their legal authority (2) arguments and strategies that can be made in response to a subpoena (3) and how to advocate for yourself and newsroom when in court.

Data Cleaning 102 | This lesson is taught by NEFAC’s Maggie Mulvihill. It is the second of two introductory lessons on cleaning datasets obtained online or through public records requests. By completing this lesson, you will: (1) advance your data cleaning skills with OpenRefine (2) learn how to import dirty data from websites and increase memory in OpenRefine (3) build your facet and clustering skills (4) and learn how to split and merge data.

Data Cleaning 101 | The first of two introductory lessons on cleaning datasets obtained online or through public records requests. Instructed by NEFAC’s Maggie Mulvihill, a professor at Boston University. By completing this lesson, you will: (1) understand what data cleaning is and why it’s necessary (2) learn about the free tools available to help clean data and (3) begin building your data cleaning skills.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.