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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Congress Passes FOIA Reforms...NFOIC Celebrates

Yesterday's HUGE vote was a watershed event for the FOI community in the United States -- my thanks to all of you who wrote and called and spurred your members into action!

Our release:

The passage of important bipartisan reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a victory for citizens seeking access to information about their government. The National Freedom of Information Coalition – comprised of representatives of 48 state and regional freedom of information groups – applauds work of all who worked to make these critical reforms a reality.

The NFOIC joined dozens of non-profits to spearhead the reform, and its member FOI coalitions played a vital role, working at the grass-roots level across the country to advocate for changes to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“This is a victory for the American people, and a welcome example of bipartisan compromise that reconciled differences between the House and Senate bills,” said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “It’s important for us all to remember whom the federal Freedom of Information Act, and indeed all open government laws, were created for.”

If signed by President Bush, The new OPEN Government Act would:

• Penalize agencies, for the first time, if they missed the 20-day statutory deadline for responding to a FOIA request. The penalty for delays would be a waiver of the processing fee.
• Create an Ombudsman to assist FOIA requestors and provide an alternative to costly and lengthy litigation.
• Clarify that FOIA applies to government records held by outside private contractors;
• Establish a FOIA hotline service for all federal agencies and electronic tracking of all requests.
• Reestablish the right of requesters to recover legal fees if they file suit and “substantially prevail,” without the case going to final court judgment.
• Improve the reporting requirements to create greater performance accountability.

“This bipartisan legislation is an early Christmas present for the citizenry, as it would greatly speed up the process that thousands of taxpaying Americans have invested in and use daily,” Davis said.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) led the effort to pass this legislation. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) also played a key role in getting this legislation over the finish line.

NFOIC members contacted several key players in the reform movement and provided sign-on letters for coalition members to join. The national headquarters worked with an array of non-profit advocacy groups on the issue and wrote repeatedly to leaders in Congress, calling for change.

“The people spoke, and this time Congress listened,” Davis said. “Freedom of information is an elemental component of a representative democracy, enabling citizens to serve as civic watchdogs.”

The National Freedom of Information, headquartered at the University of Missouri, is funded through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Established in 1950, the John S. and James L. Knight foundation makes national grants in journalism, education and arts and culture. Its fourth program, community initiatives, is concentrated in 26 communities where the Knight brothers published newspapers, but the foundation is wholly separate from and independent of those newspapers.

1 comment:

FOIA Friend said...

The requirement to respond to a FOIA request within 20 days is not what many hope it is. The 20-day requirement is to communicate to the requester the agency's determination to accept and process their request. There is no statutory time limit, and never has been, to provide responsive records. The courts and DOJ guidance for providing responsive records is to provide them "promptly thereafter" following issuing the 20-day statutorily requirement to notify the requester their FOIA request has been accepted. The proposed law is still a good one - many agencies and programs need that push to communicate to requesters at the start of the process. At one agency there was a backlog of greater than 1,000 requests that had yet to be reviewed and a processing determination made. Requesters need to understand and use their "constructive denial" right and appeal the denial of their request after a reasonable (3 to 5 months, in my opinion) time has passed since receiving their determination letter and not receiving any documents. That kicks the request up a level, to OGC, for an administrative determination and we all know OGC is focused on not having anything end up in court. The request will then get attention (at the expense of those who haven't used their constructive denial priviledge and are patiently waiting). An educated requester is the best requester.