Knight FOI Fund

Knight FOI Fund
(Credit: DNY59 / iStockPhoto)

The Knight FOI Fund exists to offer financial support in open government lawsuits. It was established to fuel and assist the pursuit of important FOI cases by helping to defray upfront costs such as filing fees, depositions, court costs and other expenses associated with legal actions. Only in rare circumstances do Knight FOI Fund grant awards also include direct outlays for attorney fees.

Since it began in January 2010, the Knight FOI Fund has assisted NFOIC member organizations, their allies and other litigants with 35 grant awards in FOI or access cases. While some are still being adjudicated, Knight Fund-supported cases have resulted in 21 favorable court orders or settlements that achieved more transparency or greater access.

Significant access victories in cases supported by the Knight FOI Fund have included: the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Doe v. Reed and the subsequent disclosure orders on remand; a California case that kept the nation's largest public pension fund from hiding details of a $100 million real estate investment loss; a case that forced Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to release more than 8,000 emails; and a case involving a New Mexico state college that had declined to disclose records regarding building projects and a search for a new president.

In addition to support for meritorious legal access cases under state and local public disclosure and open meeting laws, the Knight FOI Fund is also available to support litigants in anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suits, SLAPP defenses, important appellate cases and federal FOIA cases where citizen and journalist access to important public record information may be enhanced.

NFOIC only seeks reimbursement, or any kind of recovery of the Knight FOI Fund investments, when litigants it supports win reimbursements for costs, fees or expenses through court victories or legal settlements.

Visit Knight FOI Fund FAQs to find out what is funded, read these reimbursement policies, and learn how to apply here.

The need for such a fund arose from the realization that the economic crisis and the evolution of the news media has resulted in declining levels of FOI advocacy. The Knight Foundation and the NFOIC had a hunch that support for litigation and for the work of FOI coalitions themselves was threatened by the media economy.

An online survey was sent to all NFOIC member coalitions, and the results were convincing: Nearly 80 percent of respondent coalitions reported decreasing litigation levels.

We were convinced that we needed to move forward with a more rigorous look at the issue, so we followed up with a survey sent to the membership of the Media Law Resource Center, the nation’s media lawyers.

In July 2009, MLRC sent the attorneys of its Defense Counsel Section an electronic questionnaire developed in conjunction with the National Freedom of Information Coalition to collect information on the effect of the changes in journalism on the intensity of the battle for access to government records and proceedings.

Tallied results from the survey found that:

  • 53 percent of respondents said that the frequency of open government violations has increased in the past two to five years, while less than a third said that reporters in their jurisdiction have increased the number of FOI requests they are making.
  • When it comes to the resources devoted to seeking legal compliance with open government laws, the survey clearly illuminates the erosion of the media economy, as 53 percent of respondents said that resources have decreased, with 34.9 percent reporting that resources have decreased substantially.
  • A majority of respondents cited an average decrease of 35.9 percent when asked to assign a percentage of the increase or decrease in open government-related activity.

A reprise of that survey, sent to MLRC defense counsel and NFOIC member organization leaders in 2011, showed that the trends and concerns highlighted by the 2009 survey remained as bothersome as ever. News organizations, which once saw themselves as stewards and champions of public access rights, were becoming increasingly less inclined to file freedom of information lawsuits. However, citizens were shown to have a growing interest in government transparency, and were becoming more active in asserting their right to government information.

It's a real problem. First, access is lost. Then, misconduct goes unchallenged, and openness and accountability are illusory. Ultimately, the public is deprived of important information.

Longer term, without the press serving as the enforcement arm for the sunshine laws, more government officials will deny access with impunity, especially because government seldom enforces the access laws against public officials who violate them. Government grows more secretive at the state and local level, with less pushback than ever before.

Without another source to fund access fights, will see that sunshine laws will themselves be paper tigers.

The Knight FOI Fund continues to be an important tool to assist and fuel assertive legal advocacy for government openness.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the Foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote community engagement and lead to transformational change. For more, visit http://www.knightfdn.org/.

In the fall of 2010, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy released its national report. It concluded that information is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clear air, safe streets and good schools. For details, see http://www.knightcomm.org/.