FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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April 14, 2015 12:22 PM

No one knows for sure whether Walter Scott was the third 2015 fatality from a police shooting or the 20th. And we should know.

But the United States has no database for police shootings, so we can’t find out .

If Mr. Scott’s shocking death is to spur a much-needed national conversation about policing, racial profiling and the use of deadly force, the big-picture number is a key piece of information. Continue>>>
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April 7, 2015 1:59 PM

Federal district judges in Washington are the gatekeepers of government records in high demand. The CIA torture report. Prosecution memos about multibillion-dollar deals with big banks. And, now, Hillary Clinton's emails.

More lawsuits are filed in Washington over access to federal records than in any district court in the country. Nearly half of the 462 cases filed in 2014 under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were brought in Washington, according to a review of court filings by The National Law Journal. [See Chart.]

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, with its long history as the major forum for public-records disputes, helps shape the resolution of cases in other courts, lawyers who focus on FOIA said. Rulings by Washington judges influence — even if they don't legally bind — courts around the country. Continue>>>
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April 3, 2015 2:15 PM

A notice the Obama administration placed in the Federal Register earlier this month seemed to confirm once and for all what many transparency advocates have treated as a given for years: The White House is beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, not so fast.

The formal notice, awkwardly made public as many transparency advocates were celebrating Sunshine Week, officially withdrew long-dormant regulations that once created procedures for FOIA requests to part of the White House known as the Office of Administration. The George W. Bush White House actually stopped processing such requests about a decade ago. (They sat on one of mine for several years before sending a short letter saying they had no intention of fulfilling it.) Continue>>>
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March 29, 2015 10:49 PM

A South Carolina State University board committee's recent meeting to approve an organizational structure for the institution was illegal, says Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

The university was nearing the March 13 deadline to hand in documents to the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges and an approved organizational structure was part of the package required by the accrediting agency.

Trustees failed to vote on it at a meeting March 10. Instead, they gave authority to the board's executive committee to tentatively approve the document. Continue>>>
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March 23, 2015 10:47 AM

Some recent examples of New York journalists facing challenges to efforts to shine light on the working of local government:

ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

The newspaper is involved in two lawsuits challenging authorities' denial of requests for information under the state Freedom of Information Law. Continue>>>
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March 20, 2015 9:32 AM

A Senate committee on Thursday discussed but took no action on a bill that would largely exempt former state employees’ records from the state Freedom of Information Act.

Senate Bill 892 by Rep. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, would make all information about a state employee exempt from the FOI law 60 days after the person leaves office, except for the employee’s name; agency or department of employment; position or rank; dates of service; awards, decorations or commendations; and the city or town of his or her last known address.

Cooper said the bill would protect former state employees’ privacy. Some committee members expressed reservations about the measure. Continue>>>
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March 19, 2015 11:21 PM

Simpsonville City Council received an opinion from the state Attorney General's office that a quorum was present when council members and other city officials toured the historic Simpsonville Grammar School last fall, therefore it may have violated the Freedom of Information Act.

Assistant Attorney General Anne Marie Crosswell's letter stated, "While our office is not a fact-finding entity, based on the information you have provided, we believe a court would likely find that the walk-through would classify as a meeting subject to the requirements of the FOIA."

The request for an opinion was proposed at the October meeting of City Council by councilman Matthew Gooch and seconded by George Curtis, both of whom said they were unaware of a meeting beforehand. The motion carried unanimously. Continue>>>
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March 17, 2015 1:03 PM

A top freedom-of-information expert isn’t buying Hillary Clinton’s explanation of why she set up her own email system to conduct official State Department business, calling it “laughable.”

Daniel Metcalfe, who advised White House administrations on interpreting the Freedom of Information Act from 1981 to 2007, told The Canadian Press that the former secretary of state acted “contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

“There is no doubt that the scheme she established was a blatant circumvention of the Freedom of Information Act, atop the Federal Records Act,” he said, reviewing a transcript of Clinton’s remarks during her Tuesday news conference. Clinton told reporters she deleted approximately 30,000 personal emails from her private account that she also used as secretary of state. Continue>>>
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March 13, 2015 11:27 AM

Newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information.

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was first envisioned as a tool for traditional media to seek documents, data and information they deemed important to public interest. It also was meant to allow ordinary Americans ( http://bit.ly/1DcaxxM ) to seek information from the federal government about themselves.

Nearly a half-century later, news organizations continue to paper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash strapped and less likely to press their claims in court. Continue>>>
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March 12, 2015 11:06 PM

by Eric Newton

Each spring for 10 years now, a vast media conspiracy has rolled across the hills and plains of this nation. Journalists of every stripe – cartoonists to commentators to hard news reporters – have been in on it. And not just journalists, but politicians, educators and librarians, as well as members of nonprofits and civic groups.

What’s the conspiracy? It’s called Sunshine Week, and it is built around the birthday of James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights. This year, the week is March 15-21.

The agenda: to brazenly promote your right to know. Open government, we argue, only works when public information flows freely. As Madison himself explained nearly two centuries ago: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where I work, launched and have helped sustain Sunshine Week. At the start, in a speech to roughly 100 open-government advocates, I said the foundation could support them only if they could find a way to work together. They did. 

After a decade, can we say that Sunshine Week is working? Yes. And no.

Search Google and you’ll see hits tripling over the years. That’s the work of the American Society of News Editors. Millions of people read stories about open government. New openness laws pass. Cities, states and the feds issue proclamations. This year’s California bill officially recognizes Sunshine Week as “a celebration of the public’s commitment to openness and an exploration of what open government means in a technology-enhanced future.”

Experts like Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative testify about how freedom of information saves lives, of how it tells us, for example, when our Marines have been issued body armor with life-threatening flaws. Today, says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, we have more access than ever to official information about topics like intelligence spending and the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Overall, access seem much better than in the day after the 9-11 attacks, when public documents vanished from websites like so many fireflies blinking out.

Unfortunately, examples also abound of closed government, of public information held hostage. This week, major news organizations are reporting that too many government agencies are trying to block the public’s access to its own information by charging exorbitant fees. Or turning our information over to businesses that are not transparent. Or muddying up freedom with restrictions that display an ignorance of what freedom really means.

Secrecy is a bipartisan proposition. Hillary Clinton’s hidden emails? George W. Bush did the same kind of thing. All over Washington, documents are stamped “classified” for no good reason. Governments big and small are affected. Virginia, by not paying attention to just one of its own data files (according to Waldo Jaquith of U.S. Open Data) was leaving millions of dollars in revenue uncollected. In Maryland, Fredrick County councilman Kirby Delauter went so far as to threatened to sue if his name was printed in the newspaper.

So the battle continues. Always there have been those who would hide the truth and seek personal advantage in the darkness. We can’t stop fighting for sunshine because they won’t stop fighting against it.

In the end, the American experiment will fail unless the people who run this country – us – know nearly as much as the people who work for us – our employees, the government.

But is sunshine by itself enough? Madison said, we must “arm ourselves with knowledge.” We can’t just know that our government disregards its own Freedom of Information laws. We have to do something about it.

This year, during Sunshine Week, consider joining us at sunshine events in your community or online. Yours are the laws being broken. Yours is the information being stolen. Yours are the truths being bludgeoned. In the long run, your participation is the only thing that really matters. If you see public information go into hiding, complain, complain, complain. It’s your right.

Eric Newton is senior adviser to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Florida. 

(NOTE: Be sure to visit NFOIC's Sunshine Week 2015 web page and learn more about what's planned by the national coalition and the more than 40 state and regional affiliate members. 

March 11, 2015 11:34 AM

Information regarding the routes of freight trains carrying petroleum belongs in the public record. The Feb. 24 editorial regarding recent derailments noted that neither railroad companies nor state regulators appear eager to release the details. Virginia officials disclosed the pertinent information only after receiving a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The situation underscores the importance of the FOIA. It also suggests that government in its various manifestations fails to embrace the principles the FOIA promotes.

If individuals and agencies truly embraced the FOIA, the press and private citizens would not need to file FOIA requests. Information that must be disclosed ought to be disclosed without going through a FOIA process with the potential to inconvenience all parties. Continue>>>
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March 5, 2015 4:30 PM

Actions taken by the Aiken County Board of Education appear to have violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act during an executive session Tuesday at a special called meeting.


By a vote of seven to two, with board members Tad Barber and Richard Hazen opposing the motion, the board voted to go into executive session to discuss any contractual aspects of a response to a proposal by the Public Education Partners to sponsor information input sessions concerning the hiring of a new district superintendent. It was never clear what contractual elements there may have been to that proposal, if any.


Before the vote to close the meeting, Barber asked School Board attorney Bill Burkhalter if there was “still a reason” to go into executive session based on a change to the request. Continue>>>
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