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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A tip of the 'ol blogger hat...

To an Australian FOI blogger who kindly e-mailed me to say he had checked out the Advocate blog. It's a small world, after all....

Check it out. It's a nice way to see what sorts of issues are bubbling up in other parts of the world. Seems secrecy finds its way 'round the globe.


Good News for Olson!

From Editor & Publisher:

The U.S. government agreed to drop two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer from its case against the Army lieutenant who called the Iraq war illegal and refused to deploy.

1st Lt. Ehren Watada, whose court-martial is scheduled Feb. 5, still faces a maximum of four years imprisonment if he is convicted of missing movement for his refusal to deploy last June and two remaining counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for comments made at a Veterans for Peace Convention in Seattle.

The two counts dropped Monday carry a maximum of two years in prison. They stem from comments he made to reporters in June explaining why he refused to go to Iraq and why he was challenging the Bush administration's reasons for going to war.

In exchange, Watada's attorney Eric Seitz agreed that two subpoenaed reporters will not have to testify. They are Honolulu Star-Bulletin's Gregg Kakesako and freelance reporter Sarah Olson.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

FOI Frees an Innocent Prisoner...

From the Associated Press:

Two inmates - a convicted rapist in Georgia and a man who was unjustly convicted of murder in New York but helped find the real killer from his prison cell - were granted their freedom Tuesday after DNA tests proved their innocence.

Innocence Project co-director Peter Neufeld said he had never seen a case like that of Roy Brown, whose 1992 murder conviction was thrown out by a judge.

”Armed only with a notebook, stamps and a copy of the state’s Freedom of Information Law, Roy Brown identified the true perpetrator from a prison cell,” said Nina Morrison, an attorney at the Innocence Project.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Quote of the Day....

From the Times' coverage of the civil suits involving the NSA's domestic surveillance program comes this beauty from one of the lawyers involved in the plaintiffs' case:

""Sometime during all of this," Mr. Eisenberg said, "I went on Amazon and ordered a copy of Kafka's 'The Trial,' because I needed a refresher course in bizarre legal procedure."

From the story: The Bush administration has employed extraordinary secrecy in defending the National Security Agency's highly classified domestic surveillance program from civil lawsuits. Plaintiffs and judges' clerks cannot see its secret filings. Judges have to make appointments to review them and are not allowed to keep copies.

Judges have even been instructed to use computers provided by the Justice Department to compose their decisions.

But now the procedures have started to meet resistance. At a private meeting with the lawyers in one of the cases this month, the judges who will hear the first appeal next week expressed uneasiness about the procedures, said a lawyer who attended, Ann Beeson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lawyers suing the government and some legal scholars say the procedures threaten the separation of powers, the adversary system and the lawyer-client privilege.

Justice Department officials say the circumstances of the cases, involving a highly classified program, require extraordinary measures. The officials say they have used similar procedures in other cases involving classified materials.

In ordinary civil suits, the parties' submissions are sent to their adversaries and are available to the public in open court files. But in several cases challenging the eavesdropping, Justice Department lawyers have been submitting legal papers not by filing them in court but by placing them in a room at the department. They have filed papers, in other words, with themselves.

At the meeting this month, judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit asked how the procedures might affect the integrity of the files and the appellate records.

In response, Joan B. Kennedy, a Justice Department official, submitted, in one of the department's unclassified filings, a detailed seven-page sworn statement last Friday defending the practices.

"The documents reviewed by the court have not been altered and will not be altered," Ms. Kennedy wrote, and they "will be preserved securely as part of the record of this case."

Some cases challenging the program, which monitored international communications of people in the United States without court approval, have also involved atypical maneuvering. Soon after one suit challenging the program was filed last year in Oregon, Justice Department lawyers threatened to seize an exhibit from the court file.

This month, in the same case, the department sought to inspect and delete files from the computers on which lawyers for the plaintiffs had prepared their legal filings...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

It's a rare day when the NFL pops up on my FOI alerts...

From Editor & Publisher:

A security video showing Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick surrendering a water bottle to a security screener at Miami International Airport was erased after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested it under Florida’s public-records law.

The Jan. 17 video was part of the investigation into the water bottle with a hidden compartment that an initial police report said contained a “small amount of dark particulate” and an odor consistent with marijuana.

Authorities this week said lab tests showed no evidence of drugs, and the bottle is no longer considered evidence in an investigation. Vick was cleared by police of any wrongdoing.

In a report on its Web site, the Atlanta newspaper said it requested a copy of the video on Jan. 18 from the Miami-Dade Police Department, under the state’s public-records law. Police spokesman Robert Williams said at the time that police had decided they would not release it because it was part of an open investigation.

On Jan. 23, after authorities said the case was closed, the newspaper said it again requested a copy of the video and was told that it had been erased.

Williams told the Associated Press yesterday that he had consulted with department attorneys about releasing a flash drive that contained video from a Transportation Security Agency camera at the airport. Those attorneys consulted with the TSA, which refused to release the contents of the flash drive because of security concerns and ordered that it be returned to the TSA, Williams said.

The matter became moot anyway, Williams said, because he then discovered that the investigating officer had erased the flash drive after being informed by the State Attorney’s Office that there would be no criminal charges against Vick.

Williams said the newspaper would have to take up the matter of releasing the videotape with the TSA.

According to the newspaper, Williams wrote in an e-mail: “That information was shown to the State Attorney’s Office and it was determined by them that no criminal act was committed, and no charges were filed. Therefore this video was deleted from the flash drive since it was not being used in a criminal case.”

...OK, so I may have to write more on this one. An airport video is maintained to do what, exactly? I'd think, among other things, to isolate individuals who pose a threat or even commit crimes. So the immediate desctruction of a tape seems to serve no purpose at all -- except prevent scrutiny of the system.

This is fascinating: is Vick's privacy at stake here? Certainly not. He was walking throuh airport security! Have you done that lately? Feel like anybody is really worried about your...privacy?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More on Olson...

From Editor & Publisher

A petition challenging U.S. Army subpoenas ordering reporters to testify in the court martial of an Army lieutenant has drawn more than 50 signatures from prominent media members, and will be placed online for more to sign later this week.

Sarah Olson, a freelance journalist and radio producer in San Francisco, began circulating the petition last week, which supports her efforts and those of Honolulu Star Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako to oppose the order to testify. Both have been subpoenaed to testify at the court martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, which begins Feb. 5 at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Watada faces charges stemming from a refusal to deploy to Iraq and comments made against the war, including calling it "manifestly illegal." Olson, 31, has not been asked to reveal a confidential source or turnover notes, she says. But she is being ordered to verbally confirm elements of her reporting, which include interviews with Watada.

"My contention is that when you ask a journalist to participate in the prosecution of personal political speech, you are turning the journalist into the investigative arm of the government," she told E&P.

The petition states, in part, "In the name of the cornerstone values this nation claims to uphold and for which the men and women in the military are fighting, we ask that you end your insistence that journalists participate in the court-martial of Lt. Watada. We need more information, participation, and debate - inside and outside the military - not less. As the LA Times argued in its January 8th editorial: 'It's time for the Army to back off.'"

Olson says the petition signers have included Phil Donahue, syndicated columnist Norman Solomon, radio host Laura Flanders, and former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser. She said anyone can sign on once the statement and petition is placed on the Web, at www.defendthepress.org, on Wednesday.

"We are also asking people to send their own individual letters to the Pentagon," Olson added. "I hope the Army begins to realize that there are a bunch of people who do this for a living who are concerned."

The petition elaborates: "It's a journalist's job to report the news, not to participate in government prosecutions of political speech. The press cannot function if it is used by the government, and hauling a journalist into a military court erodes the separation between government and press. Turning reporters into the investigative arm of
the government subverts press freedoms and chills dissenting speech in the United States. The press must preserve its ability to cover all aspects of a debate, not just the perspectives popular with the current
administration. We believe a journalist's duty is to the public and their right to know, not to the government."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Not exactly FOI, but terribly important...

Defenders of press freedom should carefull monitor the Sarah Olson affair.

We often hear that the Pentagon exists to defend our freedoms. But the Pentagon is moving against press freedom, in a truly troubling way.

Journalist Sarah Olson received a subpoena to testify next month in the court-martial of US Army Lt. Ehren Watada, who now faces prosecution for speaking against the Iraq War and refusing to participate in it.

They want Olson to testify to authenticate her quotes from Watada - enlisting a reporter to substantiate quotes? Didn't she quote Watada already? What's to be gained?

No one here is arguing that national security, or the commission of a crime, or any other compelling interest is at stake. Indeed, they just want Olson to walk into a military courtroom and read back quotes...


Well, perhaps Olson put it best:

Ms. Olson, who has written:

"It is my job as a professional journalist to report the news, not to act as the eyes and ears of the government. I am repelled by this approach that jeopardizes my credibility and seeks to compel my participation in muting public speech and dissenting personal opinion.

"It seems clear that the U.S. Army is attempting to redefine the parameters of acceptable speech and to classify dissent as a punishable offense. Subpoenaing journalists in this case unequivocally sends the message that dissent is neither tolerated nor permitted. Utilize your constitutionally guaranteed speech rights and go to prison. What rational soldier would agree to speak with me or any other member of the media if jail was a likely result?"

For more: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Sarah_Olson

Monday, January 22, 2007

English translation of Reyes v. Chile online....

In September, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark ruling in Reyes v. Chile, holding that individuals have a fundamental human right to access government information under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. The Court condemned the government of Chile for denying requests from several environmental activists for impact assessments related to a controversial logging project in a native forest. The Court ordered Chile to comply with the information request and to put in place a freedom of information law to protect the right of access for all citizens. The ruling is binding on all members of the Organization of American States that have both ratified the American Convention on Human Rights and have voluntarily submitted to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court. (The U.S. has done neither, so is not bound).

The decision was not previously available in English, but the translation has just been released and is available at http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.

The link to the word document version is http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_151_ing.doc.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Now THAT is a great idea!

VIRGINIA CITY CREATES FOI OFFICE: Acquiring information from city government could soon get easier for Suffolk residents.

The city plans to create an office that will handle requests for documents that are available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Officials expect the office to open in March, and they hope it will make it easier for local residents to request and receive the records they're looking for.

A city employee who is trained in Freedom of Information guidelines will ensure that all requests get responses, and a city attorney will determine which documents don't have to be released.

The executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council will train City Council on the Freedom of Information Act in March.

From the Daily Press

China adopts transparency law

From a great blog on FOI and e-government in China:

A draft regulation on the release of government information has been approved in principle by the State Council, China's cabinet, to promote government transparency. The regulation has prescriptions on the range of government information, release methods and procedure, and supervision. It will be promulgated by the State Council for implementation after further amendments.

The release of government information will focus on issues of utmost importance to the public to safeguard the public's right to know, according to information from the State Council on Wednesday.

The regulation is viewed as a move by the government to improve efficiency and prevent abuses of power."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

News from Germany on FOI...

Regulatory expert Thomas Hart, who worked on behalf of the Bertelsmann Foundation on FOI implementation in Germany, passed on some interesting statistics on the first year of access.

The government reports a total of 2,278 requests -- not many, but again, it's the first year. Of that total, 1,379 were totally or partially approved, with 410 rejected. The report said that 142 rejections were challenged, with 67 challenges rejected (27 pending)

The users? Mostly private citizens, with only 92 requests by journalists, and
4 by Members of Parliament.

Fees were charged in only 5 percent (114) of all approved information
requests, with an average fee of 50 Euro (65 US-D)

Read more here.

Big News for Sunshine Week 2007


Leading journalists join nationwide effort against unwarranted secrecy; Will participate in Sunshine Week programs March 11-17, 2007

For immediate release: Jan. 17, 2007

WASHINGTON ─ Journalists Ben Bradlee, Tom Brokaw and Judy Woodruff are the honorary chairs of Sunshine Week 2007, March 11-17.

Bradlee is former executive editor and now vice president at large of The Washington Post. Brokaw is former anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News and now a contributing reporter and producer for NBC News documentaries. Woodruff is special correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and anchor of Conversations with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg Television.

Sunshine Week http://www.sunshineweek.org is an open government initiative spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Entering its third year, the program encourages newspapers, broadcasters, online content producers, schools, libraries, civic groups and others to engage in discussions about the importance of protecting public access to government information and meetings. It is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

As honorary chairs, Bradlee, Brokaw and Woodruff will serve as spokespeople for Sunshine Week 2007 and support the initiative’s efforts to empower and educate people about their right to know what government is doing, and why.

"Open government laws are absolutely essential to getting the information officials might prefer to see locked away in a safe," Bradlee said. "People may not think about Sunshine Laws every day, but when you need them, you need them. When you're trying to get information, you know that with these laws you're on the side of right. Sunshine Week is a good opportunity for journalists, the public and government officials to reinforce the importance of these laws and the foundations they're built on."

"If we present ourselves to the world as patrons of democracy, then we must be vigilant stewards at home of the oxygen that it requires – access to what our government is doing and the right to speak freely about it," Brokaw said. "Those who comprised what I call the Greatest Generation fought valiantly to preserve and protect those freedoms. It is up to us to ensure during Sunshine Week and all year that their sacrifices were not for naught."

"Government decision making in the United States should be as transparent as possible. Ours is a democratic system – of, by and for the people – and we ought to know what's going on," Woodruff said. "While I don't think you can create a blanket policy covering every situation, the default position should be for disclosure, for openness. We're a stronger society because information – good and bad – flows freely. Sunshine Week is a time to celebrate and protect that strength."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sunshine Mulligans in Vermont...

From the Burlington Free Pres comes news of a troubling decison in Vermont, where a judge apparently believes that violating the state's open meetings laws can be remedied by a "do over..."

"A recent judge's ruling on the South Burlington School Board's violation of Vermont's open-meeting law is the latest in a series of decisions that have upset free-speech advocates.

Judge Matthew Katz in December ruled that even though the board violated the law by holding an emergency, closed-door meeting to craft a goodbye deal with the then-superintendent, the board remedied its actions by holding a public meeting a few days later when it voted on the agreement.

Although he said that the board did not show proof that it complied with the law, Katz, as he did in a similar ruling in 2005, said it was unlikely that the board would violate the open meeting law in the future. He assigned no punishment to the board and left the plaintiff to pay for his legal fees. (The board, for its part, said in an opinion piece published by a local newspaper that had the case gone to trial, it would have proved it acted legally.)

The judge's action has free-speech advocates wondering what will deter other boards from meeting in secret and who will want to challenge their government when, even if in the right, they will have to pay their own legal costs...."

From the Burlington Free Press.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A new audit in California, with the same depressing results

Police agencies in the capital region and statewide routinely delay, dismiss or ignore ordinary citizens' requests for reports on basic public crime, arrest and other topics, according to a landmark audit of California law enforcement agency practices.

The audit, overseen by the nonprofit group Californians Aware, was performed by reporters at 28 newspapers and three television stations across the state, including The Sacramento Bee and two other McClatchy Co. newspapers in California, the Modesto Bee and the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Reporters visited 216 police, sheriff's and California Highway Patrol offices in 34 counties on Dec. 4, 2006, with a common goal: request law enforcement information to test compliance with the California Public Records Act. The audit measured what was provided and how fast.


Step One: Acknowledge That You Have a Problem...

In Delaware, where a new NFOIC-sponsored coalition is gearing up, its seems lawmakers want to embrace transparency -- provided they can talk about in closed-door sessions.

The Associated Press reports that after hearing complaints during last year's election campaign about how the legislature operates, including secret discussions by committees that craft budget bills, GOP lawmakers said they would consider ways to make the General Assembly more transparent.

"In passing the state's Freedom of Information Act several years ago, the legislature exempted itself. House Republicans say they now plan to address the FOIA issue as it applies to the General Assembly, but they want to do so out of the public spotlight.

Instead, they plan to form an internal working group "to research best practices in other states with regard to public access to legislative information and activities."

House Majority Leader Wayne Smith said the activities of the internal working group would not be open to the public.

"When legislation is proposed, as is true with any legislation, that will be something that will run through the committee process, and those (hearings), of course, will be open to the public and available for comment at any time during the process," he said.

Republicans said the working group would be charged with making recommendations "to improve the transparency of the General Assembly operations," and that the GOP hoped to pass legislation this year."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sunshine Week in Spanish: A Great Idea!

Those of you with Spanish-language audiences take heed: Eight journalists including Gilbert Bailon, editor and publisher of The Dallas Times Herald's Spanish-language daily Al Día and David Sedeño, publisher of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram's Diario La Estrella have formed the Sunshine Week 2007 Spanish Language Working Group to promote the importance of open government in the Hispanic community.

The group will promote Sunshine Week by working with the national, regional and state coordinators to develop Spanish-language materials for participating newspapers and news organization, through media interviews and public forums, and by leading their own organizations' Sunshine Week activities.

Meet the New Boss

Lost in the drama of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi taking the gavel last week was a good, old-fashioned dose of hypocritical secrecy.

Pelosi and her newly empowered pols moved to shut out Republicans in the first hours of Democrat control -- after holding a secret session of both parties -- in what looks like the same old, same old.

That's right: the candidates who lambasted Republicans for a shameful lack of transparency are spending their much-ballyhooed first 100 hours behind closed doors, debating amongst themselves.

Secrecy, it seems, is a bipartisan value. And they say the parties can't agree on anything....

See NFOIC's letter to the Dems for more.