A Brief History of the Knight FOI Fund

By Eric Newton

Miami, Fl. and Columbia, Mo. (May 24, 2010) — Why did the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation want to partner with the National Freedom of Information Coalition to create a Knight Freedom of Information Fund?

Let’s start by going back to Oct. 2, 2009, when a major report was released by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. It concluded that information is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets and good schools.

I think Jack Knight would have agreed with that conclusion. Sixty years ago, he helped lead the efforts to create the nation’s first freedom of information laws. In the decades after that, Knight Foundation itself helped lead discussions about expanding those laws to the state and local level. In recent years, we were the lead funders in the creation of Sunshine Week, so millions of Americans would better understand how freedom of information helps them in their daily lives.

With all that, you think the job would be done. It isn’t, and, as Jack once noted, it never will be. The battle for freedom is, he said, “a never-ending battle.” Decades ago he warned of “a great many sleeping editors and publishers” thinking that the First Amendment alone will protect them from “a hostile government.” He was right then and he’s right now.

Government is no less hostile today. Something like 80 percent of the country’s governmental units, especially local governments, still do not obey their own freedom of information laws. The vast majority of the public still thinks the government is just too secretive.

So if we, the public, can’t get access to our own information from our own government, what can we do? We can sue. For a long time, that’s what the good local newspapers did. Media companies, in fact, have handled the lion’s share of the difficult job of liberating public information from the government. But now, during this economic crisis, newspapers—with notable exceptions—aren’t doing that the way they used to.

Enter the University of Missouri, home to the oldest university-based Freedom of Information Center in the country. Missouri took on the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and with a Knight grant this hard-working volunteer group has grown. NFOIC now includes groups in nearly every state. And these state groups can take up the legal cases when media companies don’t.

The way that they can do it is through the Knight Freedom of Information Fund.

How does it work? Say you can’t find out why the police are not answering 911 calls. A state group, like the Florida First Amendment Foundation, will find a pro-bono attorney to take the case. They’ll go to the National Freedom of Information Coalition to get the money to file the lawsuit. If they win, the information is released and reported by media partners. (And in many states the costs have to be reimbursed, so the money can go back into the fund.)

In this manner, NFOIC thinks it can handle some 50 cases over the next few years. It’s an important new way for citizens themselves, working with journalists, to take greater responsibility for creating informed, engaged communities.

Groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center—which have raised endowments with Knight help—have proven that nonprofit groups can help people defend their freedoms.

We hope the Knight Freedom of Information Fund helps the National Freedom of Information Coalition to do the same, giving people in communities a new way to defend their rights.

Eric Newton is the vice president of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.