Editor's Note

The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

More on Senator Secrecy, a.k.a Kyl...

Lots of mentions popping up in the press now, as the Guardian's story is followed...
Fox News, The Houston Chronicle each have mentions, and SPJ has Kyl's face on a milk carton.



It's Official...Senator Secrecy IS....

SPJ's efforts to unmask Senator Secrecy -- the parliamentarian using darkness and subterfuge to wreck meaningful FOI reform supported by overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate -- has worked.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., is, officially, Senator Secrecy.

His unstated objections -- he will say only that Justice doesn't like FOI reform, so he doesn't like it. Ah, democracy: where a single senator derails legislation on transparency by behaving completely secretly.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Cool Use For FOI!

The Asbury Park Press has established a section of its Web site called “DataUniverse,” which consists of searchable databases of public records, such as public employee salaries, criminal convictions, crime reports and property assessments. In five months since DataUniverse went live in December 2006, it generated more than 25 million page views.

DataUniverse is the subject of the most recent Audience Building Initiative case study from Prof. Rich Gordon of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

The Audience Building Initiative series of case studies showcases both operational excellence and initiatives that have successfully increase audience for newspaper Web sites. Past studies focused on "Spotted" from Morris Communications and blogging at The Spokesman-Review .

In Wisconsin, Partly Cloudy....

The Wisconsin coalition does an excellent job of frequently weighing in through a series of FOI-related submissions to editorial pages across the state. Here is the latest installment, from Margaret Davidson and Ann Frisch:

"In Wisconsin, the law gives the public maximum access to government records and decision-making meetings. People have the right to know, for example, whom local police have arrested and why.

However, when students in two classes at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh requested daily arrest lists for area city and county police departments, they didn't get the requested information.

We first trained our students in journalism and human services courses to know their rights under the Wisconsin Open Records Law. The students then filed requests for the police records.

Although no law specifically requires government officials to provide a daily arrest list, officials are expected to promptly provide the names, birth dates, time of the arrest, name of arresting officer, and the reason for the arrest. This expectation stems from a pivotal court case, Newspapers Inc. v. Breier, in which a judge concluded:

"We hold as a matter of law that the harm to the public interest in the form of possible damage to the arrested persons' reputations does not outweigh the public interest in allowing inspection of the police records which show the charges upon which arrests were made. The police blotter shall be open for inspection by the public at any time when the custodian's office is open for business and the 'arrest list' or the police 'blotter' is not actually being used for the making of entries therein."

But today, this ruling seems forgotten. In our study, no police department technically met our requirement for strict interpretation of the law. To comply with the expectations of law, police officials could have provided a copy of the computer logs with information on arrests included, or they could have provided a copy of all incident reports that resulted in arrests...."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Critical Ruling in Tennessee

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that local law enforcement agencies are not exempt from the state's open-records law, overturning a lower court ruling that would have allowed them to keep many files from the public's view.

The May 25 ruling was a victory for The Jackson Sun newspaper, which has been seeking law enforcement and other public records since it filed a lawsuit against the city in 2004.

It was a significant ruling in the eyes of many press and open-government advocates.

"The privilege would have given any law enforcement agency in the state a blanket opportunity to withhold any information they wanted," said Rick Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association.

In 2004, reporters for the newspaper requested police records of interviews made by officers who stopped pedestrians and motorists based on reasonable suspicions, but never arrested anyone.

The field interviews were recorded by date and time and included only basic information, such as names, addresses, physical descriptions, type of car and sometimes a photograph.

The police department refused to allow the newspaper to see the records, claiming they were helpful for identifying potential suspects and witnesses to crimes in certain areas.

Jackson Sun Publisher Ed Graves said there were some concerns that the police were racially profiling individuals. According to court records, 80% of the people questioned were black

From the SPJ Senator Secrecy sweepstakes...

Please make a quick call to your state's senators today. We need all the help we can get in smoking out "Senator Secrecy," the legislator who put a secret hold on the proposed Open Government Act, which could significantly reform FOIA.

All the phone numbers and background information you need are posted here:


Please post the results of your queries using this form:


We need everyone pulling together to complete this exercise as quickly as possible. There is no such thing as "duplicated effort." When you have your senators' offices on the line, please make it clear that you support the Open Government Act and expect and expect your elected officials to do the same.

Thanks so much!


Christine Tatum

National President, Society of Professional Journalists

Assistant Business Editor, The Denver Post

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Finding the Secret Senator...

OK, folks: it's on.

What began as a half-baked idea on Memorial Day weekend has taken form, and we need your help finding the rascal who placed a secret hold on the FOI reform bill in Congress. That's right: an unnamed U.S. Senator would like to stall meaningful FOI reform through secrecy...

If you can't get outraged about this, you lack a pulse.

SPJ has graciously agreed to host our outing party, at www.spj.org

Call your Senator now! This is fun!


Friday, May 25, 2007

New Book on Government Secrecy....

The inestimable Ted Gup has a new book coming out...and it's on secrecy! Ted, a longtime friend to many of us in the FOI community, a former staff writer for the Washington Post and Time magazine, is the author of Nation of Secrets: The Threat To Democracy And The American Way Of Life, (Doubleday, June 2007)

The blurbs are fabulous:

"Nation of Secrets is an eye-opening and very important book. Ted Gup provides many new illustrations of the excesses of governmental and corporate secrecy�but he also does something even more significant. He connects hundreds of items from the news of recent years into a pattern that shows how unbalanced America's approach to secrecy has become. I thought I was familiar with the issues Ted Gup addresses, but I learned something from every chapter of this book."
--James Fallows, correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly

"A generation ago, 'the public's right to know' was a U.S. media cliché, but today's silence is deafening. Nation of Secrets explains why."
--Kevin Phillips, New York Times bestselling author of American Theocracy

"Nation of Secrets brilliantly illuminates the landscape of secrecy in which we live. In a perceptive account illustrated with vivid case studies, Ted Gup shows how secrecy is corrupting our institutions and squandering our democratic heritage. Before the tide of secrecy overwhelms the tools of self-government, this gripping book may prompt readers to ask: Is a nation of secrets what we really want to become?"
--Steven Aftergood, Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists

From much more, see http://www.nationofsecrets.com/index.html




The NFOIC, SPJ, and your nation, needs your help.

On April 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the Open Government Act, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

The bill, which has garnered support from more than 100 organizations, would improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by reducing delays in releasing government records requested under FOIA by creating incentives for public officials to comply with the law.

The House passed a similar measure earlier this year but the bill was blocked from reaching the Senate floor for a vote May 24 when an unknown Senator placed a secret hold on the bill.

A secret hold. On an FOI bill. Think about that a minute.

This is not the first time a secret hold has been used to block open government legislation from reaching the floor. In Aug. 2006, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) put a hold on a bill to create a searchable public database of all federal grants and contracts. Steven's role was revealed only after online public advocates and journalists forced senators to go on the record about whether they placed the hold or not.

And that’s what we want to do right now: get them on the record and find out who Senator Secrecy is...


Check www.spj.org and look for the link with FIND THE SECRET SENATOR — and see if your senator has been called already.

If not, or if they are not on the record yet, call them right away.

Ask them, quite simply, and POLITELY:

“Did Sen. XXX place a hold on the Open Government Act?”

Send us your answer — e-mail to daviscn@missouri.edu and we’ll get the response online immediately.

It’s fun.

It’s for a good cause.

It’s a fine way to exercise those First Amendment rights on a Memorial Day break.

Cue the Irony: Secret Hold Placed on FOI Bill

This threatens to RUIN my Memorial Day weekend, people....

For the second time in as many years, a member of your United States Senate has placed a SECRET hold on a transparency bill -- this time it's the Open Government Act.

"Regrettably, an anonymous Republican hold is stalling this important Freedom of Information Act legislation, needlessly delaying long-overdue reforms to strengthen FOIA and to protect the public's right to know," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a co-sponsor of the bill along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

"It is both unfortunate and ironic that this bipartisan bill, which promotes sunshine and openness in our government, is being hindered by a secret and anonymous hold. This is a good government bill that Democrats and Republicans alike, can and should work together to enact," Sen. Leahy said in a May 24 floor statement.

He doesn't sound half as angry as I am. More to come on this. I have an idea....


It's Worth Remembering: Geneaologists Are Natural Allies

From the Seattle Times:

"For every generation in this country there has been a war. And with wars come millions of records that can shed light on family history, detailing everything from the color of soldiers' eyes to what their neighbors may have said about them.

On Thursday, Ancestry.com unveils more than 90 million U.S. war records from the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 through the Vietnam War's end in 1975. The site also has the names of 3.5 million U.S. soldiers killed in action, including 2,000 who died in Iraq.

"The history of our families is intertwined with the history of our country," Tim Sullivan, chief executive of Ancestry.com, said in a telephone interview. "Almost every family has a family member or a loved one that has served their country in the military."

The records, which can be accessed free until the anniversary of D-Day on June 6, came from the National Archives and Records Administration and include 37 million images, draft registration cards from both world wars, military yearbooks, prisoner-of-war records from four wars, unit rosters from the Marine Corps from 1893 through 1958, and Civil War pension records, among others.

The popularity of genealogy in the U.S. has increased steadily alongside the Internet's growth. Specialized search engines on sites like Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and FamilySearch.com, along with general search portals like Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., have helped fuel interest...."

If your coalition hasn't reached out to state historical and genealogy groups, now is a perfect time....


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In Delaware, the AG steps up

From today's Wilmington Journal comes news that the state's AG will support a bill giving his office jurisdiction to represent citizens in FOI jams, much to the chagrin of at least one powerful lawmaker:

"A powerful opponent of previous legislation related to sunshine laws expressed concern Tuesday after Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden announced his support of a bill that would allow his office to represent citizens who file Freedom of Information Act cases against the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Thurman Adams Jr., D-Bridgeville, said he worries the proposed bill could stretch the Attorney General's Office thin. Adams has put the brakes on previous FOIA bills, including two this session that remain stalled in the Senate Executive Committee, which he chairs.

Under current law, the Attorney General's Office represents the state in FOIA cases brought by the public, often requiring citizens to pay their own legal fees as they seek documents from state agencies.

A bill, which is expected to be introduced when legislators resume session next month, would allow a person who has been denied information by a state agency to go to the Attorney General's Office for a determination on whether the agency is violating the sunshine law...."

Senate President Pro Tem Thurman Adams Jr., D-Bridgeville, said he worries the proposed bill could stretch the Attorney General's Office thin. He said that the AG risks "opening up a bigger can of worms than he thinks because they'll have to deal with a lot of off-the-wall complaints."

Ah, you gotta love that: a state attorney general receiving inquiries on open government = "a can of worms."

And I thought we called it democracy?


Hattiesburg Scalia Flap Ends

The Hattiesburg American, much to its credit, just won a three-year fight for a piece of paper:

The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday agreed that the Hattiesburg American was improperly denied access to documents into an investigation of the seizure of reporters' tapes of a 2004 speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The decision comes more than two years after the newspaper appealed the U.S. Marshals Service's refusal to allow access to records pertaining to the seizure of tapes of Scalia's speech at Presbyterian Christian School in April 2004.

anice McLeod, associate director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information and Privacy, determined that the Marshals Service acted inappropriately when it denied the newspaper access to investigation records.

The investigation began after a marshal seized the tapes of Hattiesburg American reporter Antoinette Konz and Associated Press reporter Denise Grones.

The marshal said she acted at the direction of Scalia.

The Hattiesburg American and the Associated Press later successfully sued the Marshals Service. Scalia also sent written apologies to the reporters, saying the marshal had not acted at his direction.

However, the Hattiesburg American's Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the investigation was denied by the Marshals Service. The newspaper had requested a copy of the final report related to the investigation, transcripts of interviews conducted during the investigation and guidelines for handling the media provided to agents who provide security for judicial officers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Keep Your Eye on This....

An excellent piece in the New York Times today about the use of court records for anti-snitch groups. Note the Justice Department's ominous language:

There are three “rats of the week” on the home page of whosarat.com, a Web site devoted to exposing the identities of witnesses cooperating with the government. The site posts their names and mug shots, along with court documents detailing what they have agreed to do in exchange for lenient sentences.

Last week, for instance, the site featured a Florida man who agreed in September to plead guilty to cocaine possession but not gun charges in exchange for his commitment to work “in an undercover role to contact and negotiate with sources of controlled substances.” The site says it has identified 4,300 informers and 400 undercover agents, many of them from documents obtained from court files available on the Internet.

“The reality is this,” said a spokesman for the site, who identified himself as Anthony Capone. “Everybody has a choice in life about what they want to do for a living. Nobody likes a tattletale.”

Federal prosecutors are furious, and the Justice Department has begun urging the federal courts to make fundamental changes in public access to electronic court files by removing all plea agreements from them — whether involving cooperating witnesses or not.

“We are witnessing the rise of a new cottage industry engaged in republishing court filings about cooperators on Web sites such as www.whosarat.com for the clear purpose of witness intimidation, retaliation and harassment,” a Justice Department official wrote in a December letter to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative and policy-making body of the federal court system.

“The posting of sensitive witness information,” the letter continued, “poses a grave risk of harm to cooperating witnesses and defendants.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Video from NFOIC sessions coming soon...

Catch the first of eight streaming videos from the National Freedom of Information Coalition Summit sessions in Seattle May11-12. Most of those will be available later this week, but the panel discussion, ""Sports Secrecy: Stadium Deals in the Luxury Suites?" is already available.

Special thanks to the TVW, Washington State's Public Affairs Channel, for recording all of these sessions. What a great resource!

The link to the NFOIC broadcast page is here.
or the main site is www.tvw.org

Monday, May 14, 2007

We're back!

The blog suffered while I was in Seattle co-hosting, along with the Washington Coalition for Open Government, the 2007 FOI Summit. I'm afraid I was just too busy to even think about it!

But we've had a most productive weekend, and we're even picking up some nice coverage in the Seattle Times (thanks Mike!)

We'll also soon have lots of content on the NFOIC site, including video of sessions!


Monday, May 07, 2007

Texas passes shield legislation....Congress next?

The Associated Press is reporting that Texas is moving on a shield law:

The Texas Senate approved a bill May 1 giving journalists limited privilege against being forced to testify in court or disclose confidential sources.

Dubbed the “Free Flow of Information Act,” the bill had struggled to win support of lawmakers concerned it would hinder prosecutors’ ability to gather evidence in criminal cases.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the bill was needed to protect confidential sources who might not come forward with valuable information for fear of being exposed.

“This is to protect the whistleblowers,” Ellis said after the bill passed the Senate 26-5. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. The legislative session is scheduled to end May 28.

“The press plays a vitally important role in our democracy and must be protected from government intimidation,” Ellis said.

News groups lobbied for the bill as necessary to protect sources and rein in prosecutors who might try to use the news media as an investigative arm of their office.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

http://www2.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifShield Legislation Back in Congress

Legislators will try again to pass a federal shield law:

Reps. Rick Boucher (R-Va.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) are teaming Wednesday (May 1) to introduce the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007.

Similar bills have been introduced before, but that was in a Republican-controlled Congress and with opposition from the Bush administration.

The bill "sets criteria which must be met before information can be subpoenaed from reporters in any federal criminal or civil matter," say the representatives, adding that it "carefully balances the public interest in the free flow of information against the public interest in compelled testimony."

The bill looked like it had legs back in 2005, powered by the imprisonment of Judith Miller of the New York Times and subpoenas of reporters who had reported on the Wen Ho Lee espionage case.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Military Cracks Down on Blogs...

An interesting development in the realm of military control of information. Wired says that "the U.S. Army has ordered soldiers to stop posting to blogs or sending personal e-mail messages, without first clearing the content with a superior officer, Wired News has learned. The directive, issued April 19, is the sharpest restriction on troops' online activities since the start of the Iraq war. And it could mean the end of military blogs, observers say.

Military officials have been wrestling for years with how to handle troops who publish blogs. Officers have weighed the need for wartime discretion against the opportunities for the public to personally connect with some of the most effective advocates for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the troops themselves. The secret-keepers have generally won the argument, and the once-permissive atmosphere has slowly grown more tightly regulated. Soldier-bloggers have dropped offline as a result.

The new rules (.pdf) obtained by Wired News require a commander be consulted before every blog update.

"This is the final nail in the coffin for combat blogging," said retired paratrooper Matthew Burden, editor of The Blog of War anthology. "No more military bloggers writing about their experiences in the combat zone. This is the best PR the military has -- it's most honest voice out of the war zone. And it's being silenced."

Army Regulation 530--1: Operations Security (OPSEC) (.pdf) restricts more than just blogs, however. Previous editions of the rules asked Army personnel to "consult with their immediate supervisor" before posting a document "that might contain sensitive and/or critical information in a public forum." The new version, in contrast, requires "an OPSEC review prior to publishing" anything -- from "web log (blog) postings" to comments on internet message boards, from resumes to letters home.

Failure to do so, the document adds, could result in a court-martial, or "administrative, disciplinary, contractual, or criminal action."

Despite the absolutist language, the guidelines' author, Major Ray Ceralde, said there is some leeway in enforcement of the rules. "It is not practical to check all communication, especially private communication," he noted in an e-mail. "Some units may require that soldiers register their blog with the unit for identification purposes with occasional spot checks after an initial review. Other units may require a review before every posting."

But with the regulations drawn so tightly, "many commanders will feel like they have no choice but to forbid their soldiers from blogging -- or even using e-mail," said Jeff Nuding, who won the bronze star for his service in Iraq. "If I'm a commander, and think that any slip-up gets me screwed, I'm making it easy: No blogs," added Nuding, writer of the "pro-victory" Dadmanly site. "I think this means the end of my blogging."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

OK, now this is COOL!

From the folks at WikiFoia:

One main purpose of the site is to provide an extensive and growing "How To" guide for practical, concrete assistance for regular citizens who are thinking about filing an open records request in any state.

We're also collecting news, resources, legal information, breaking court cases, and more, including a space for considerable information about the open records landscape in each state.

Using a Wiki format allows anyone who drops in to add or edit information. We hope that as it grows, open records advocates in each state will use the easy-to-edit features of a Wiki to create a growing library of information.

Most of us are aware of the basic idea of a Wiki—they allow a group of people with a common interest to collaborate on creating informational content online. Wikipedia is the best known example.

With WikiFoia, people who are interested in using or learning about state sunshine laws can come together to share their wisdom and experiences. Some citizens feel quite intimidated by the open records process and wonder if they should leave it up to reporters and attorneys to do that kind of work.

With WikiFoia we hope to create a fairly informal and collaborative environment that reduces the "FOIA is only for experts" fear.

Also, since open records are constantly under review and revision, we hope that this online community—where anyone can add new information--will become a place well-suited to keeping up with those changes.

Additionally, we are collecting ideas for "internet-based transparency reforms"—an emerging area of citizen activism to encourage school districts, cities and counties to post a significant amount of information online to reduce the need for FOIA requests. (One school district in Illinois is considering a proposal to post every open records request it receives online, along with the requested documents.)

Please take a look at www.WikiFoia.org . Your comments and insights are welcomed. If you maintain an open records website, we'd appreciate it if you would consider adding a link to the WikiFoia. If the WikiFoia doesn't already include a link to your website, please feel free to add your links and any information you'd like to share.

For more information or any questions, please e-mail info@WikiFoia.org .

Thank you!