FOI Advocate News Blog

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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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October 28, 2014 10:02 AM

THE ISSUE: Freedom of Information Act; OUR OPINION: Legislature should make improvements to law a top priority

Do you believe the police should be held accountable when they shoot someone? Do you believe you have a right to know when your county or city council is considering raising your taxes? Do you believe when children die in state custody state agencies should be held accountable?

If so, youíd better tell your state lawmakers soon. These topics and others came up at a House subcommittee hearing this past week. Last month, a Senate committee considered the same issues. Lawmakers are looking at making changes to the state Freedom of Information Act, and they need to know you value government transparency.

One of the possible changes is a response to a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year declaring that autopsy records are medical records and therefore private. The very case on which the court made its ruling provides an excellent example of why this ruling jeopardizes South Carolinians. Continue>>>
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October 28, 2014 10:01 AM

Sometimes the First Amendment guarantees access to public records (generally limited to court records). Often Freedom of Information Acts and Public Records Acts are seen as fulfilling broader First Amendment values, by facilitating speech about how the government operates. But in Thursday's Roe v. Anderson (W.D. Wash. Oct. 23, 2014), a federal district judge relied on the First Amendment to block a state public records request.

Washington law requires 'erotic dancers' to get licenses, and the Washington Public Records Act apparently mandates the release of licenses generally, including these licenses. But the dancers, the district judge held, 'have raised serious questions regarding whether' this violates their First Amendment rights, because revealing their names and other personal information can expose them to 'harassment and threats to their physical safety.î (Compare Doe v. Reed (2010), which applied First Amendment scrutiny to disclosure of the names of petition signers, though held that, given the government interests supporting such disclosure, the disclosure was indeed constitutional.) According to the Steve Maynard (Tacoma News Tribune), the man who requested the names said 'he was curious and he wants to pray for the strippers. ëI would pray for those dancers by name,' David Van Vleet said after the hearing. ëIím a ChristianÖ. We have a right to pray for people.í'

I should note that this case might be relied on by analogy in Second Amendment cases, in situations where people try to use public records laws to get the names of registered gun owners, or of registered holders of gun carry licenses. (The Supreme Court said, in D.C. v. Heller (2008), that there is no constitutional right to concealed carry, but some courts ó the Seventh and Ninth Circuit and the Illinois Supreme Court ó have held that there is a constitutional right to some form of carry, and in some states a license is required for any sort of carrying.) It's always uncertain, of course, how much courts will accept such analogies. Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:32 AM

Pennsylvanians have a strong interest in government transparency. The problem is that the Corbett administration apparently doesn't think so. If it did, lawyers representing the state would not have been in Commonwealth Court Tuesday to defend the indefensible.

The commonwealth's lawyers were there to speak on behalf of what amounts to a mockery of the state Right-to-Know law ó a policy that encourages public employees nightly to prune the number of emails they keep. The deleted emails are backed up by state servers for just five days before being permanently purged ó thus excluding any legal review.

This newspaper and others have sued, asking that the court stop the outrageous policy of destroying emails so soon and order that they be preserved for at least two years. On Tuesday, the commonwealth argued that the 2008 Right-to-Know law still gives the state the right to set its own records retention policies. Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:31 AM

While politicians at the state and local levels pledge to bring transparency to government, a lack of campaign finance transparency emanates from the Indiana Secretary of State's office. Twice a year during every election cycle, I check with the Madison County Clerk's office and the Election Division of the Secretary of State's office to review campaign finance reports.

The candidates, political parties and political action committees operating in Madison County are required to file a report at the county courthouse. It used to be a common practice that candidates for a seat in the legislature would file a courtesy copy of their finance report with the Madison County Clerk's office. Not any more!

Now to find out about the finances of a candidate for a seat in the Indiana House or Indiana Senate, the average resident has to go online to view the report. Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:30 AM

There is the goose, of course, but there's also the gander, an old clichÈ goes: What's good for one ought to be the same for the other. But let's not confuse them when discussing the duplicity of California's Legislature when it comes to transparency.

The Legislature, of course, passes laws that affect other branches of government as well as itself. As the state struggles with the archaic Public Records Act (PRA), with its dozens of exemptions, weak disclosure deadlines and lack of enforcement, lawmakers only nibble around its edges.

The PRA, of course, does not touch the Assembly and the Senate. Those bodies are governed by the Legislative Records Act (LRA), an equally weak transparency law. As long as they leave the PRA mostly untouched, lawmakers lack the impetus to toughen the LRA. Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:29 AM

Open-meetings laws are effective only if they actually compel public entities to conduct public business in public. That clearly is the intent, and the Olentangy school board appears to have violated the intent of the law by discussing what should have been public matters through private emails.

The Ohio Supreme Court is being asked to take up an appeal of a case filed by an Olentangy school board member, Adam White, against other members who corresponded with each other via email before taking an official action. White filed suit last year in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, which ruled that four other school board members did not violate open-meetings laws in exchanging the emails.

The Dispatch would welcome the Supreme Court taking the case and affirming the need for boards to adhere to what often are referred to as 'sunshine' laws. Other groups supporting White's appeal include the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, Common Cause Ohio and the League of Women Voters of Ohio, all which joined in a 'friend of the court' brief backing White. Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:27 AM

Open government is a constant theme in South Dakota, for both good strides and glaring omissions.

Last month, the South Dakota Newspaper Association sent open government surveys to all legislative and statewide candidates, except those running for U.S. House and Senate. Of 182 surveys sent, about 105 were returned, according to the association.

The two key agree/disagree statements were, 'More work needs to be done to improve open government in South Dakota,î and ìLaws requiring publication in official newspapers of various government notices are necessary and remain the most effective way to keep citizens informed.' Continue>>>
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October 27, 2014 11:21 AM

It has launched a system which allows citizens to report Ebola-related issues and government, health agencies and others to keep track of the disease. Citizens can use SMS or voice calls that are location-specific. The data will then be analysed to identify correlations and highlight issues.

The system is easy for citizens to use
Already, regions with growing numbers of suspected Ebola cases have been pinpointed and the delivery of urgent supplies such as soap and electricity have been sped up.

"We saw the need to quickly develop a system to enable communities directly affected by Ebola to provide valuable insight about how to fight it," explained Dr Uyi Stewart, chief scientist of IBM Research in Africa. Continue>>>
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Africa, Ebola, IBM, technology
October 27, 2014 11:19 AM

When it comes to transparency, Florida Governor Rick Scott hasn't always been crystal clear. So says President of the First Amendment Foundation, Barbara Petersen. She says some of that stems from the governor's long history working in the private sector.

ìWe had a few bumps along the way there early in the administration if you remember," Petersen says. "We had problems getting access to the transition team e-mails and it turns out they had been deleted. The governor did a good job of trying to go back to get those e-mails ñ the ones he could."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the issue and found no wrong doing and Petersen says Scott asked the legislature to help protect against future mistakes by clarifying officers elect are subject to open government laws once the election results have been certified. Continue>>>
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October 23, 2014 9:43 AM

As the editor of Plymouth Universityís student union paper, the Knowledge, Katie French felt she had a duty to hold her university to account. But four weeks before the deadline for her final-year dissertation she was threatened with expulsion when she printed a story that made Plymouth look bad.

The offending article, published last year, uncovered planned cuts of £260,000 to student services at the institution, including disability support. French says that the studentsí union bombarded her with angry calls, texts and emails demanding that she remove it from the website. In one email, seen by the Guardian, a vice-president of the union warned: 'Some things are sensitive for business reasons. Stage 3 dismissal from university or suspension.'

She recalls: 'I panicked and burst into tears. I felt very isolated but at the same time I knew we were doing the right thing. At the end of the day I was just trying to report on things that students have the right to know about.' Continue>>>
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October 23, 2014 9:42 AM

Since first taking office more than 30 years ago, Iíve held a firm belief that government should be conducted in an open and transparent manner. Government officials are rightly held to a higher standard of scrutiny and accountability, and that includes being truthful and forthcoming to the men and women theyíve been elected to serve.

A recent poll shows that just 13 percent of Americans agree that the government can be trusted to do what is right all or most of the time. At a time when faith in the federal government is at an all-time low, measures to repair some of that trust are as important as ever. I am cosponsoring legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to bring additional transparency and accountability to the federal government.

Now nearing 50 years since being signed into law, FOIA grants the public access to previously unreleased material from the federal government. It is based on the principle that transparency promotes accountability. FOIA allows taxpayers, whose interests federal employees are tasked with representing, an opportunity to evaluate their efforts. Throughout the years, FOIA has been updated to meet changing information interests and systems. Our legislation would again provide much-needed updates. Continue>>>
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October 23, 2014 9:40 AM

Open Access to scholarly research for everyone sounds like a great idea. For libraries, open access means being able to buy more scholarly journals - critical to students and faculty who want to do research. The general public also benefits by having improved availability of information. For publishers, however, the question of open access goes right to their bottom line.

ìA big concern is how do we affordably produce materials that can be made open access in ways that protect the quality of the content when you are not going to be compensated for helping to create it in the end," University of New Mexico Press Director John Byram said. "We need to find ways to balance the benefits of open access with how to compensate the professionals who refine and improve the materials that we disseminate.î

College students like the idea of open access textbooks. It's an important affordability issue for students who pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks, items the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship doesn't cover. But Byram says open access textbooks need to be thought through. ìSomewhere along the line, someone is paying the bills,î he said. If students are getting the textbooks for free, it's worth thinking about who paid to allow that to happen. A foundation? A granting agency? Continue>>>
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