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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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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February 23, 2015 1:34 PM

The federal government needs a new Freedom of Information Act champion.

Following the November retirement of Office of Government Information Services Director Miriam Nisbet, the office in charge of monitoring governmentwide FOIA compliance and policy is looking for a permanent replacement.

The job was posted today, and it’s of critical importance to both how the government releases information and records as well as how federal agencies share information with the public. Continue>>>
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January 12, 2015 11:42 AM

It seems it was only a few days ago that Rose and I, along with our little guys, were heaving candy from the back of a pickup truck crawling down Calhoun Street during the Bluffton Christmas Parade. We have yet to finish taking down the Christmas decorations, and already we have two children deeply involved in basketball, with school going full-bore.

Although it was somewhat of a high-velocity blur, this Christmas celebration was certainly one of our best so far. We had plenty of family time, a proper amount of worship time, with all involved having a day or two of breath-catching time before resuming our regular lives. Through it all, though, there was a small undercurrent of sadness in that this is our first Christmas without Rose’s mom.

With the session just around the corner, your Beaufort/Jasper delegation is hard at it. Reps. Herbkersman and Erickson are attending pre-session meetings for Ways and Means Committee. Continue>>>
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November 13, 2014 2:50 PM

Thanks to whistleblowers like Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and Edward Snowden, we are learning to ask what our government knows like informed citizens in a democratic republic should. Manning and Snowden sacrificed their freedom to increase government transparency.

You can uncover a lot of information without the possible risks of whistleblowing using the freedom of information act — FOIA. The FOIA allows people to formally ask the government questions and receive documents that answer those questions.

Staying well informed is a great way to protect your freedom. Continue>>>
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October 8, 2014 1:03 PM

Jason Grumet argued in ìGovernment wilting from the sunshineî [Washington Forum, Oct. 2] that transparency measures such as open meetings and records laws have a 'dark side,' one that is presumably responsible for the 77 percent of Americans who do not trust their government most of the time. Perhaps the fact that Congress has exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act and has no requirements to hold all meetings in public might contribute to the mistrust that troubles Mr. Grumet.

A cop on the beat has little expectation of privacy when doing his job. A senator or a subcommittee cutting a deal with a special interest shouldn't either. Sadly, we hold Congress to a much lower standard of openness while executive-branch agencies stonewall requests for information. Blame for suspicion of and dissatisfaction with Congress and the executive branch rests entirely at the feet of our elected officials, who, by restricting access to information, do much to prove themselves unworthy of trust. Continue>>>
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