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 2016 United States Circuit Court in Sack v. DoD that extended “Educational Requester” status in federal FOIA petitions to all students seeking government information for educational purposes;
- 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.
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.
Convinced that we needed to move forward with a more rigorous look at the issue, NFOIC teamed with Media Law Resource Center, and conducted a national survey among our members. Their responses affirmed what Knight and NFOIC believed to be the effect of the changes in journalism on the intensity of the battle for access to government records and proceedings.
Longer term, without the press serving as the enforcement arm for the sunshine laws, more government officials may deny access with impunity and seldom enforcing the access laws against public officials who violate them. Without another source to fund access fights, sunshine laws will become paper tigers.
The Knight FOI Fund continues to be an important tool to assist and fuel assertive legal advocacy for government openness. In a recent development to add additional strength to the Knight FOI Fund, in March 2015, the NFOIC and the Society for Professional Journalist combined war chests to fight for FOI. Both organizations also will use their combined national networks of journalists and citizens to apply public pressure to government agencies that flaunt the law.
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/.