This is a significant victory for the right to know, which has been taking a real beating where privacy rights are concerned. Way to go, Chuck Tobin!
The public's right to know triumphed over government secrecy Friday when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ordered to make public the addresses of more than 600,000 households that received $1.2 billion in aid after the 2004 hurricane season.
The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal and Florida Today newspapers (all owned by Gannett Co. Inc.) sued FEMA for the names and addresses after their public-information request was denied by the agency.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the newspapers have a right to the addresses, but not the names, of recipients of disaster aid.
The judges stated in their decision that, "disclosure of the addresses will help ... by shedding light on whether FEMA has been a good steward of billions of taxpayer dollars in the wake of several natural disasters across the country, and we cannot find any privacy interests here that even begin to outweigh this public interest."
Kate Marymont, The News-Press executive editor, said, "The court spoke so clearly and passionately that it would be difficult to be more eloquent about the government's obligation and the public's interest in this case.
But Charles Tobin, of the law firm Holland & Knight, who represented the newspapers, said that the three-judge panel set a clear precedent and raised the bar for the privacy arguments that FEMA has used to deny information to journalists.
He also raised doubts that FEMA will continue its battle by appealing to the full 11th Circuit Court or going to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I think the judges' decision is so compelling, leaving so little room for criticism, I'd be hard pressed to believe that they will continue to fight this," he said.
Newspapers weren't the only winners on Friday.
"This is a victory for taxpayers and their right to know if the government is spending their money on legitimate disaster relief claims," said Bryan Gulley, the press secretary for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Nelson had been a supporter of the newspapers' nearly three-year fight for open records at FEMA.