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 11:08 AM

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 23, 2015

Contacts:
David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chair, 520-248-6242 (PDT), spjdave@yahoo.com
Barbara Petersen, President, NFOIC, 573-882-4856, nfoic@nfoic.org
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS/Jefferson City – The Society of Professional Journalists and the National Freedom of Information Coalition are joining forces – and legal war chests –  to help citizens and journalists fight for public records.

The two groups will band together to help litigants who sue for access to government information. The NFOIC can provide court fees and SPJ help for attorney fees. Both organizations also will use their combined national networks of journalists and citizens to apply public pressure to government agencies that flaunt the law.

“This is such an exciting collaborative project, one that will lend significant weight to our collective efforts in preserving our right of government oversight and accountability,” said Barbara Petersen, NFOIC president.  “I’m honored to be part of it.”

As part of the partnership approved during national Sunshine Week, SPJ and NFOIC will:

  • Have staff and volunteers from both organizations solicit applications and monitor public record battles at the state and federal levels for worthy cases.
  • Give priority to cases that a) have a strong legal basis, b) have the ability to establish good case law, and c) will help citizens and journalists, regardless of the profession or standing of the plaintiff.
  • Write or join amicus curiae briefs and/or intervene in cases where appropriate.
  • Coordinate publicity and advocacy.
  • Solicit other partners, when merited, such as state coalitions and other national access organizations.

“More than ever, it’s essential for groups to unite in helping citizens fight for government information,” said David Cuillier, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chair. “Together we are much more powerful against a system that is not weighted in the public’s favor.”

The SPJ Legal Defense Fund was created in 1972 to fight for the First Amendment, primarily for public records and open meetings. Litigants apply for funds and the applications are considered by a six-member committee, aided by SPJ’s attorney. The committee can provide grants of up to $5,000, and larger amounts are considered by the SPJ Board of Directors. The fund has about $75,000 available, and is replenished by donations, interest and an annual auction. In 2014 the SPJ Board approved the creation of an endowed advocacy fund that can also be used for litigation. The endowment currently generates about $4,000 annually.

The Knight FOI Fund was created by NFOIC in 2010 through a grant from the Knight Foundation to help litigants fight for open government. The fund pays for court costs, filing fees, depositions and related expenses, typically $2,000-$3,000 per case. The fund, currently at $444,000, does not pay for attorney fees, nor dictate what attorney is used in the case. The fund stipulates that if the grantee wins and receives an award then they must repay NFOIC. A Litigation Committee decides the merits of applications.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit  spj.org.

The National Freedom of Information Coalition is a national organization that supports our right to open government. Forty-four state and regional coalitions are currently connected through the NFOIC,  representing a nonpartisan alliance promoting collaboration, education and advocacy for open government, transparency and freedom of information. Visit nfoic.org

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August 1, 2014 11:41 AM

Using a litigation grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Knight FOI Fund, a coalition of news media companies –the Carroll County Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Scripps Media’s WMAR-TV—successfully challenged the Carroll County (MD) Board of Commissioners under Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA).

County commissioners were ordered by a judge to produce all email distribution lists that they use to send messages to select groups of their supporters.

The lawsuit began after a February 2013 request to the commissioners by Carroll County Times journalist, Christian Alexandersen, for copies of the commissioners' email distribution lists.  The commissioners maintained categorized groups of constituent email addresses. For example, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier maintained a list called "Republic Women's Club of Taneytown."  “Conservative Counties” was the name of a distribution list maintained by Commissioner Richard Rothschild. The reporter requested the email addresses on these and all other lists each commissioner had compiled.

The newspaper's public records requests for the lists were greeted by pleas to back off, even intimidation. The commissioners pursued a legislative effort to change the MPIA and ultimately initiated a legal challenge stating they could withhold the lists under a provision in the MPIA that allows non-disclosure when releasing records “would cause substantial injury to the public interest.”

They lost.

With help from NFOIC and the Knight Foundation FOI grant, the coalition of news media companies had filed a countersuit against the County Commissioners under the conventional provisions of MPIA. Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, D.C., represented the media coalition in the case.  In a 20-page ruling retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney rejected the county's arguments and awarded summary judgment on the news media coalition's counterclaims. (Notably, Judge Sweeney had been assigned to the case after all local judges recused themselves.)

Read NFOIC’s news release from May 2013 awarding the Knight Fund FOI grant with more background on the challenge.

Read more about the judge’s ruling from the MDDC Press Association.

NFOIC is a national network of state FOI advocates, citizen-driven nonprofit FOI organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Its mission is to foster government transparency at the state and local level.  more, visithttp://www.nfoic.org/.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The Foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 

The Maryland Foundation for Open Government  promotes openness in all aspects of local, state and federal government and provides education to the public and government on all aspects of the US First Amendment and of Maryland’s Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act. 

December 10, 2013 10:47 AM

From Courthouse News Service: MANHATTAN (CN) - Two New York Times reporters sued the Department of Homeland Security for records on their interrogations at JFK Airport this year.

The DHS claims the records do not exist, though one reporter claims his interview was entered on a computer.

Mac William Bishop and Christopher Chivers sued the Department of Homeland Security in Federal Court.

Both filed FOIA requests for information about their questioning at the airport; both were brushed off.

Visit Courthouse News Service for more.

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December 6, 2013 1:03 PM

Press release from ACLU: SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Popular Democracy today filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to compel the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to provide details about the agency's relationship with the financial industry and its efforts to block municipalities from using eminent domain to prevent foreclosures.

Banks have foreclosed on millions of homes, and vast numbers of homeowners remain at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure because their mortgages are "underwater," meaning homeowners owe more than their properties are now worth. Communities with large African-American and Latino populations such as Richmond, Calif., and Irvington, N.J., have been particularly hard hit.

"For years, communities of color across the nation were targeted by banks peddling subprime toxic mortgages, greatly contributing to the current foreclosure crisis," said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. "Now communities are responding by considering novel approaches to help save their neighborhoods. Municipalities should be able to consider all of their options."

[...]

The complaint, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, et al. v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. It was brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Popular Democracy on behalf of a number of community groups across the country.

Visit ACLU for more.

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December 6, 2013 12:58 PM

From Courthouse News Service: SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - The CIA properly handled a man's demand for records on his 1966 interrogation regarding telepathy and espionage, a federal judge ruled.

Phillip Mosier had sued the agency in San Francisco under the Freedom of Information Act last year, but his case was removed this past April to the Eastern District of California.

The complaint is sparse on details about the nature of the CIA's alleged interview with him nearly 50 years ago in Lebanon, Mo.

Visit Courthouse News Service for more.

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November 26, 2013 3:31 PM

From PC World: The Federal Bureau of Investigation should make public a legal opinion it used to justify a past telephone records surveillance program because other agencies may still be relying on the document for surveillance justifications, the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued in court Tuesday.

EFF lawyer Mark Rumold asked a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to order the FBI to disclose a 2010 legal opinion from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, telling the judges that the OLC report amounts to final policy that agencies are required to disclose under open-records law. The EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the OLC opinion in February 2011 and later filed a lawsuit after the DOJ rejected its request.

Visit PC World for more.

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November 22, 2013 1:50 PM

From Courthouse News Service: SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Immigration officials will no longer fight a lawyer who claimed that quality representation hinged on accessing the notes asylum officers took on his clients.

San Francisco-based immigration attorney Jeffrey Martins sued the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and its director, Alejandro Mayorkas, as well as the Department of Homeland Security and then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano under the Freedom of Information Act. While immigration officials made good on some of Martins' recent requests, they specifically withheld the notes officers took at asylum interviews, contained in alien records known as "A-files."

Visit Courthouse News Service for more.

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November 22, 2013 1:36 PM

From Sunlight Foundation: Today the Sunlight Foundation filed its very first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. In May 2013, we sent a FOIA request to the General Services Administration (GSA) requesting a copy of all contract notices that had been posted on FedBizOpps.gov since 2000. These notices would allow members of the press, researchers and our developers to analyze government spending patterns, to look for inaccuracies, corruption and waste.

FedBizOpps.gov is a government website where contracting opportunities and awards are posted. It also includes notices when something is sole-sourced without competition. However, most of these notices are archived soon after their posting and the FedBizOpps advanced search requires knowledge of the exact solicitation to really find what you're looking for. This prevents the public from researching the original solicitations when a contract goes bad. One notable example is Healthcare.gov. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services originally signed a contract for “Enterprise System Development” back in 2007, which eventually came to include work on the recently-launched health exchange website. Now that the contract has come under scrutiny, many want to examine the original solicitation. Some smart Googling might bring it up, but historical data on this site is pretty difficult to find. Additionally, there's no machine readable bulk export option to allow for broad analysis of patterns in contracting over time.

Visit Sunlight Foundation for more.

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November 22, 2013 1:17 PM

From NFOIC:  A few state FOIA and local open government news items selected from many of interest that we might or might not have drawn attention to earlier in the week. While you're at it, be sure to check out State FOIA Friday Archives.

Minnesota high court: Business not subject to open-records laws

image of Access keyThe Minnesota Supreme Court ruling reversed a Court of Appeals decision in case involving an Ely newspaper. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a private business that contracted with a northern school district to renovate buildings isn’t subject to state open-records laws. The ruling means that Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls doesn’t have to reveal to Timberjay Newspapers of Tower, Minn., details of its subcontract with a Minnesota architectural firm to build schools in St. Louis County. The high court reversed the Appeals Court’s October ruling, which had been viewed as a victory for public access to government contracts.

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Vanderbilt rape records request denied again, Tennessee

Nashville officials on Thursday again denied a request for records related to the investigation of a June 23 incident in which four football players at Vanderbilt University are accused of raping an unconscious female student. The Tennessean and its attorney are weighing their response.

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N.M. Judge says state can keep audit secret

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — The state can keep secret an audit that prompted it to freeze payments to providers of mental health and substance abuse treatment, a state district judge ruled Thursday. Judge Douglas Driggers rejected a request by the Las Cruces Sun-News and New Mexico In Depth to order the Human Services Department to release the audit under state open records laws. But he did leave open the possibility of a new hearing in six months to see if more of the 300-page document can be released later.

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Clinton records trial delayed to Jan. 30, IA

CLINTON — A trial on the enforcement actions related to the city of Clinton not releasing records of closed sessions has been continued. In a summary judgment issued Tuesday, the city was found to have violated the state open records law in not releasing the records of a series of six closed meetings held regarding the lawsuit filed over the ambulance service billing practices. The Wednesday trial was to present arguments on the penalties and enforcement.

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Conservative thinktank wants emails of outspoken UNC law professor

The Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based conservative group, has filed a public records request for emails and correspondence of Gene Nichol, a tenured University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor who has been critical of McCrory Administration policies. The public records request for Nichol’s emails was reported Thursday afternoon by Sue Sturgis of the Institute for Southern Studies, a group which has closely tracked spending by Art Pope, a wealthy Republican donor serving as McCrory’s budget director. Civitas is funded almost entirely by a family foundation run by Pope.

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Another View: FOIA fixes would help, Michigan

A committee in the Michigan House has sent a bill making essential improvements to the state's Freedom of Information Act to the full chamber for consideration, likely later this year. That is good news for media organizations that fight battles to get public information on a regular basis. But it's even better news for citizens, who are entitled to see records that let them evaluate the quality of their government.

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PA local agencies may have violated law

Two local government entities may have violated the state's Open Meetings Law, also known as the Sunshine Act, related to how officials handled executive sessions in October. The Express documented how local government handled executive sessions during October. During that time period, Keystone Central School Board and Wayne Township's Board of Supervisors went into executive sessions during public meetings and the boards may have violated the Sunshine Act after potentially failing to offer proper explanation for the executive sessions, according to case law and a legal expert's interpretation of the law.

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Sterling cancels mediation hearing in FL public records case

A hearing set for this morning in a lawsuit involving a public records request for a town official’s emails was cancelled Wednesday afternoon.
Sterling Palm Beach had asked for mediation in hopes of resolving key issues prior to a Dec. 13 hearing involving documents related to lease negotiations for the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. However, Sterling cancelled the hearing, which was a request to set mediation. Calls to John Little, Sterling’s attorney, were not returned.

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Wyo. Supreme Court hears arguments in records case involving frack chemical trade secrets

CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over whether a trade secrets exemption in Wyoming's public records law may be invoked to shield from disclosure many of the chemicals the petroleum industry uses in hydraulic fracturing. The landowner group Powder River Basin Resource Council and environmentalists including the Wyoming Outdoor Council argued that individual ingredients in the various chemical products used during hydraulic fracturing can't be considered trade secrets. Therefore, they say, the information on file with the state must be disclosed to the public.

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Colorado couple sues town for records in February police shooting

The ACLU and a Castle Rock couple whose car was hit by a police officer's bullet while he was responding to a burglary in February are suing town officials for records related to the shooting and the officer's conduct. Town and police officials have repeatedly denied Michael and Susan Cardellas' open-records requests for documents detailing the internal investigation into the Feb. 21 shooting, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday. The couple also wants information concerning Officer Terry Watts' conduct about 1 p.m. that day, when he fired his rifle at fleeing burglary suspects in a Ford Explorer.

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University of Central Florida ignores FOIA request

A federal judge has ordered UCF to release documents involved in a same-sex parenting study, but UCF has obtained legal counsel in efforts to block the release. More than 50,000 documents relating to the parenting study, which appeared in Social Science Research — a publication housed at UCF — have been requested, but not submitted.

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Journalism background expected to serve new asst. attorney general in Washington well

OLYMPIA – Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Monday that he has selected Olympia attorney Nancy Krier to serve full time as the office’s Open Government Assistant Attorney General. Prior to pursuing her law degree at the University of Washington, Krier worked several years as a reporter.

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CT lawmaker scrambles after political consulting revelations

Rep. Geoffrey Luxenberg tried to skirt open-government laws by directing a state legislative aide to communicate with him by text message to his personal cellphone or to a personal email account. The Democrat from Manchester also asked legislative staffers to draft “talking points” to help him and his “surrogates” in interviews with reporters. The staffers told him they couldn’t do that because the issue involved his private business, not his actions as a state representative.

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Idaho open government group objects to closed Twin Falls meetings

TWIN FALLS • Idahoans for Openness in Government filed a complaint against the city of Twin Falls Tuesday, claiming city officials have repeatedly violated the state’s open meeting law. The complaint stems from the city’s use of closed subcommittees. The panels are made up of fewer than four City Council members, plus city staff and citizens. The groups make recommendations on who should fill open city positions and on city finances, for example.

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November 15, 2013 10:30 AM

From The Washington Times: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must disclose its plans for a so-called Internet “kill switch,” a federal court ruled on Tuesday.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the agency’s arguments that its protocols surrounding an Internet kill switch were exempt from public disclosure and ordered the agency to release the records in 30 days. However, the court left the door open for the agency to appeal the ruling.

Visit The Washington Times for more.

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November 14, 2013 3:29 PM

From Portland Press Herald: (Nov. 14, 2013) The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled unanimously in favor of the Portland Press Herald’s appeal requesting authorities to release transcripts of 911 calls in a Biddeford murder case, opening the door on whether other 911 recordings are public record.

The decision overturns a ruling by a Superior Court judge earlier this year that releasing the transcripts of three 911 calls in the case against James Pak, 75, who is accused of killing two people on Dec. 29 and wounding a third, could interfere with the ongoing legal case against Pak.

[...]

Six groups joined the Portland Press Herald in the lawsuit, each filing amicus briefs with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the New England First Amendment Center, the Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, the Maine Press Association and The Associated Press.

Patrick Strawbridge, a lawyer who represented that coalition, called the decision “a substantial victory for access in the state of Maine.”

“The decision puts Maine within the mainstream of states that allow access,” he said by telephone Friday.

[...]

Thirty-nine states have no restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information in them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Five states, including Maine, impose some restrictions. Six states keep 911 recordings confidential.

Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said state access laws regarding 911 tapes and transcripts are “all over the map.” The general rule, though, is that they are public.

“And they should be public,” he said.

Bunting said fights like these are a big reason the National Freedom of Information Coalition exists.

“The amount of advocacy by news media, who were once stewards, has been going down,” he said. “News organizations are less interested and less inclined to take these fights on. So when they do, it’s important.”

Bunting cautioned that the ruling may not necessarily last long. He said the Maine Legislature could proposed amendments to the state’s access laws that effectively reverse the decision. In Connecticut, he said, where news organizations have been fighting for access to 911 calls associated with the school shooting at Sandy Hook, lawmakers are discussing ways to keep those records confidential.

Visit Portland Press Herald for more.

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the New England First Amendment Coalition are members of NFOIC. --eds

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November 11, 2013 9:22 AM

From TheCalifornian.com: A San Francisco law firm is jumping on a local bandwagon asking the California Supreme Court to review an appellate court’s decision that would ultimately close all conservatorship hearings to the public.

In a Thursday amici letter to the Supreme Court, Duffy Carolan of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, argues the Sixth District Court of Appeals relied on a faulty understanding of the law to rule that all Lanterman-Petris-Short Act proceedings ought to be closed.

[...]

On Thursday, Carolan joined in with a petition of her own on behalf of the First Amendment Coalition, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, The Center for Investigative Reporting and The McClatchy Company.

Visit TheCalifornian.com for more.

The First Amendment Coalition is a member of NFOIC. --eds

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