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.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Washington Attorney General Argues No Right to Privacy for Petition Signers

Gearing up for the April 28th hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court over the attempt to block the release of names of people who signed petitions to negate an expansion of gay rights, lawyers for Washington state filed briefs arguing that people who sign petitions have no right to privacy.

In September U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle ruled that releasing the petition names would violate the individual's constitutional right to engage in political speech anonymously. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the lower court's decision, declaring that petition signing is not an anonymous act and allowing disclosure of the signer's identities.

The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the decision pending its ruling.

Legal scholars anticipate the decision could have far-reaching effect on the state's initiative and referendum process as well as other open government laws, such as the disclosure of political campaign contributors.

Read more here.

New Bipartisan House Caucus Formed to Promote Transparency

A 19-member bipartisan group of House Republicans and Democrats formed a congressional transparency caucus to promote laws requiring the free accessibility of federal information on the Internet. The caucus will work to educate peers and the public, legislate new policies, and oversee existing ones.

For a list of the caucus members and their guiding principles, click here.

Faster FOIA Act Proposed with Bipartisan Cooperation

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Faster FOIA Act last week to create a bipartisan commission to investigate why federal agencies have delayed responses to information requests and to suggest ways to speed up responses.

Agencies are supposed to answer requests within 20 business days, but often they take much longer. The Department of Homeland Security had a backlog of 18,918 FOIA requests at the end of 2009, and the Justice Department had nearly 5,000.

Senators Leahy and Cornyn previously teamed up to enact the Open FOIA Act, designed to end the use of overly broad interpretations of the act's exemptions to deny requests.

Read more about this display of bipartisan cooperation here.

Detroit Free Press Wins Freedom of Information Award

The Detroit Free Press won the 2009 Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award for exposing a pattern of abuse by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick that ultimately led to the mayor's resignation and jailing.

The Free Press obtained more than 14,000 text messages sent to and from the city-issued pager of former Detroit chief of staff Christine Beatty. A three-month review of the messages showed that Beatty and Mayor Kilpatrick had lied under oath in a police whistle-blower case that cost taxpayers more than $9 million.

Read more about the award here.

Arkansas School District Hesitates to Provide Football Coach Evaluations

Through the Arkansas Freedom of Information law, the Paragould Daily Press is seeking personnel records and evaluations related to the suspension of several assistant high school football coaches after a November 2009 overnight trip for a playoff game, but The Greene County Tech School District says releasing the documents would violate the coaches' right to privacy.

Read more here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iowa Senate Approves Subjecting Non-Profit School Board to Open Meeting Laws

The Iowa Senate voted to make the Iowa Association of School Boards subject to state openness requirements, applying open meetings and open records laws to a privately run association.

The move comes as a nonprofit school board is alleged to have inflated salaries and engaged in other questionable practices.

Read more here.

Police Officer Pulls Gun on Complainant Inside Police Station

WTAE Channel 4 obtained photos taken minutes after a Blairsville, Pennsylvania police officer pulled a gun on a man inside the police station while making a complaint against his landlord. Officer Janelle Lydic said Christopher Hall became enraged when she tried to escort him out of the police station.

Click here to see the photos obtained through the open records laws.

Wyoming School District Refuses to Hand Over Salary Information

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle filed a lawsuit against Laramie County School District 1 for not complying with the newspaper's request for the names of employees and their salaries. The assistant superintendent for LCSD1 said he would be breaking a state law if he provided the information sought, referring to a statute that requires legal advertising of school district salaries by category.

Laramie County School District 2 complied with an identical request.

For more information, click here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee Examines How FOIA is Working

Assistant professor in the University of Arizona's School of Journalism David Cuillier was one of eight witnesses called to testify to a U.S. House of Representatives committee on how well the FOIA is working. Other witnesses included the federal public records ombudsman, agency FOIA officers, and a litigator for the Electronic Freedom Foundation and expert records requesters.

Read more here.

Bloomberg Wins Appellate Victory in Suit for Bailout Details

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled in favor of Bloomberg in its suit against the Federal Reserve for access to bailout details, ruling the Fed must release records of the $2 trillion U.S. loan program.

U.S. Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote that the FOIA "sets forth no basis for the exemption the Board asks us to read into it. If the Board believes such an exemption would better serve the national interest, it should ask Congress to amend the statute."

Read more about the decision here.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Sunshine?

In Arizona and Hawaii, efforts to shut down repeated open records requests renew the age-old debate whether requests should be limited so that government agencies can conduct business.

Readers of this blog know where we stand. The Congress Elementary School District's lawsuit against four women for harassment through records requests with repeated requests could have a chilling effect on democracy far beyond the small Arizona school district. Similarly, Hawaii's efforts to restrict the rights of a "vexatious requester" is equally disturbing.

Read more about these efforts here.

Agency Demands $111,930 for Database Description

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) filed a protest with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), objecting to a demand that the university-based data research organization pay $111,930 for a description of the information in one of its databases. TRAC seeks a description of the agency's processing of requests for naturalization that it receives. The FOIA request had been pending without a response for nearly 4 years - 1,316 days.

Read more about it here and here.

Document Warns 9/11 Commission to "Not Cross the Line"

Using the FOIA, The ACLU obtained a document wherein the 9/11 Commission was warned on Jan. 16, 2004, by high-level Bush administration officials to "not cross the line" in its investigation (see CIA4-007).

Click here to read why some think the memo is a small part of a cover up to gag the 9/11 Commission from true fact-finding.

Bank Regulators Received Bonuses

The Associated Press discovered through FOIA requests that bank regulators received taxpayer-funded bonuses despite missing or ignoring signs the financial system would melt down. The bonuses ranged from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

Get more information here.

Oklahoma Gubernatorial Candidates Support Applying Open Records Act to Legislature

The Oklahoman reports all six candidates to succeed Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry have said they support making the state's Open Records Act applicable to the Legislature.

Oklahoma is one of only nine other states that have wholly exempted legislative records from open records laws. In some states, records maintained by individual lawmakers are considered confidential, but the records maintained by the legislative bodies and committees are open.

Read more here.

Urbana, Illinois School District Spent More Than $2.6 Million in Lawsuit Settlements

The Bloomington Pantagraph used the Freedom of Information Act to get details about settlements entered into by the Urbana, Illinois school district, finding the school district has spent more than $2.6 million settling claims of students who were taught by now-convicted child molester Jon White.

White is serving 60 years in prison for molesting nine girls at an Urbana school and two more in Normal.

For more, click here.

A Portrait of FOI Citizen Warrior Ned Sloan

The Greenville News profiled Edward "Ned" Sloan, a "tenacious" FOI advocate who has sued various governmental entities so often he hasn't kept track.

Sloan also founded the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation to sue governmental entities and to assist with public interest lawsuits brought by others outside of Greenville, South Carolina.

Sloan said his lawsuits often start with a FOIA request for documents regarding public spending.

For more about this citizen warrior, click here.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cutting Off Rights to Records for "Vexatious Requesters"

Frustrated after receiving repeated requests for President Obama's birth certificate, the Hawaii House Judiciary Committee heard a bill permitting government officials to ignore so-called "birthers" who won't give up the claim that Obama is ineligible to serve as president because he doesn't meet constitutional requirements.

If the measure passes, the state Office of Information Practices could deem an individual a "vexatious requester" and restrict rights to government records for two years.

The Associated Press reports Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R-Kaneohe-Kailua) questioned, "Do we really want to be known internationally as the Legislature that blocked any inquiries into where President Obama was born?"

Attorney Peter Fritz suggested the state simply respond that it would only answer each person's request once, instead of passing a law to punish repetitive requests for open records.

Read more about SB2937 here.

Getting Public Information Out of the Metal File Cabinets

Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY proposed the 2010 Public Online Information Act, which he says is designed to take public information "out of the metal file cabinets and into the sunlight of the Internet." The measure would require each agency to create a searchable catalog of materials it makes publicly available, including where the records can be found, whether the records are available for free or for a fee, and a brief description of the records.

More about the proposed POIA here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reed Anfinson Receives Freedom of Information Award

Reed Anfinson received the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information's Freedom of Information Award. Anfinson is the publisher and owner of the Swift County Monitor-News and is the treasurer of the National Newspaper Association. He will become its president in 2011. He is also vice-president of the Minnesota News Council and has co-chaired the Minnesota Newspaper Association's legislative committee for 16 years.

Read more about Anfinson and the award here.

Michigan Refuses to Detail H1N1 Spending, Citing Anti-Terrorism Laws

Charitably, it's creative lawyering. But really the Michigan Department of Community Health's refusal to identify organizations receiving much of the $42 million in federal funding t to battle H1N1 based on anti-terrorism laws is just a convenient excuse that leaves the government without any accountability for its spending.

The state denied the The Michigan Messenger's request for information showing the recipients of more than $1.5 million in gloves, masks and other medical equipment and for information showing what a $25,000 payment to the Michigan Civilian Air Patrol was used for, and why an exercise conducted by the state cost nearly $50,000. The media group also wanted answers to where an unaccounted for $500,000 from the $1.5 million "state wide media campaign" budget went as well as where $145,000 in payouts to volunteers went.

Read more here.

N.C. Judge Rules Police Dash-Cam Videos Not Public Records

North Carolina's Randolph County Superior Court Judge Brad Long ruled that police dash-cam videos are not a matter of public record. A lawyer representing the N.C. Press Association says the ruling highlights a gray area in the state's open records laws, where the law hasn't kept pace with technological developments.

The decision stems from the efforts of media groups to obtain two dash-cam videos that could have shed light on the August 2009 fatal shooting of 21-year old UNC fraternity president Courtland Smith by an Archdale police officer on Interstate 85 after Smith had called 911 asking for assistance. The 911 radio transmission and police traffic tapes were released. The 911 radio transmission contains Smith telling a dispatcher he was suicidal, driving drunk at speeds up to 100 mph and armed with a 9 mm pistol.

For more about case, click here.

Proposed Public Access Reform Draws Bi-Partisan Support

The Time for Transparency Act, which creates as timeline for government officials to respond to public records requests, has brought together some unlikely allies in support of the bill, including the conservative government watchdog group Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Press Association, and both Republican and Democratic Lawmakers.

The proposal would require government officials to produce public records within 10 days of a request. Under current law, they are given five days to tell the requester whether the document sought is a public record. The bill would also allow people to request copies of public records by phone, and would allow a copies to be mailed if the requester pays for postage. The bill also proposes that every governmental body designate an existing employee to serve as a public information officer to oversee all public records requests.

The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition is not supporting the bill because of concern that the longer deadline would prolong the response time for information that is clearly public records.

Get more information here.

Because of Budget Cuts, Reporting on Budget Cuts More Difficult

California state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has criticized state and local officials in California who are increasingly blaming budget cuts and furloughs for delays and withholding of information under the state's Public Records Act.

The Sacramento Bee says this new excuse stymies the ability of the media to perform its watchdog role at a critical time when the public should know about budget cuts, downsized programs, and government dysfunction.

Click here for more about delayed or reduced projects due to lack of public information access.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Atlantic Beach Resident Prompts Public Records Compliance Changes

As part of a settlement agreement with Atlantic Beach resident Paul Curry, town officials must make public records available to the public to inspect and copy with a minimum delay, and to justify any money charged for Freedom of Information Act requests. Also among the agreed changes, the town must also post in Town Hall a copy of the state FOIA and the Public Officials' Guide to Compliance with South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act. The town must also pay $5,000 in Curry's legal fees.

Hawaii Agency Testifies in Favor of "Vexatious Requester" Law

Hawaii's Office of Information Practices, a state Executive branch, testified in support of a bill that would give the agency authority to label certain requesters of state government "vexatious."

The Acting Director of the OIP Cathy Takase said state law does not permit an agency to ignore a records request "even where there may be a legitimate justification for not responding."

Proponents of the bill cite repeated requests to the Hawaii Department of Health for access to President Barack Obama's birth certificate, despite the fact that President Obama posted a copy of the certificate on his former campaign website.

Read more here.

Georgia State Law Professor Criticizes Proposed Legislation as "Haphazard"

Georgia State University law professor Jessica D. Gabel makes a cogent argument that the Florida legislature's efforts to pass the Meredith Emerson Privacy Act is short-sighted and misses the mark.

The bill would remedy the release of disturbing crime scene photos of the woman who was brutally killed while hiking with her dog in North Georgia in 2008. A true-crime reporter hired by Hustler magazine requested the photos of Emerson's nude and decapitated body.

Instead of expanding exemptions to Georgia's public records laws or enlarging the state's obscenity laws, Gabel suggests the Legislature consider a stand-alone law that prevents "the malicious, gratuitous or unethical use of such photos." The law professor continues, "Darkening Georgia's sunshine laws is a sacrifice, not the solution."

Read more here.

Sunshine Week Prompts Review of Missouri Sunshine Law

Three years ago, a study of state open records laws by the Better Government Association ranked Missouri 42nd, based on criteria such as response time and penalties for violating the law. Today, proposals in the state legislature aim to improve the state's ranking. Among the proposed measures is House Bill 1445, seeking greater compliance with the Sunshine Law by increasing penalties for violations and requiring earlier public notification about meetings.

Read more here.

Associated Press Reviews Annual FOIA Reports

As part of Sunshine Week, The Associated Press reviewed the 2008 and 2009 budget year Freedom of Information Act reports filed by 17 agencies.

The review showed the government increased its use of nine major FOIA exemptions in 2009, and the agencies received and processed less FOIA requests in 2009. It also showed that the backlog of old open-records requests fell from 124,019 in budget year 2008 to 67,764 at the end of the 2009 budget year, although it is unknown whether those who made requests in the closed cases received the information they wanted.

For more specifics, click here.

Illinois Launches One-Stop Shop for Online Public Records Access

Illinois unveiled its Illinois Sunshine Portal, a website where the public can review many public records and documents in one online location. The site allows access to detailed information on state expenditures, grant awards, and public facility inspection reports for schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

Get more information here.

Florida House Speaker Sidelines Proposed 911 Call Ban

Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul sidelined the so-called "Tiger Woods Relief Act," a bill to ban the release of 911 calls. Cretul said he not to push for the legislation after consulting with colleagues and media representatives. The move came on the first day of Sunshine Week and also comes after Gov. Charlie Crist said he would not sign the bill.

For more information, click here.

Freedom of Information Day Celebrates Counsel of James Madison

Mary Treacy, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, celebrated this Freedom of Information Day by honoring James Madison.

Treacy argues it's fitting to honor Madison, born on March 16, 1751, during the annual celebration because of his confidence in government transparency and a free press, embodied in the quote: "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Treacy challenges us to make a serious individual effort to "'get up and do what needs to be done' to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree."

Read the full tribute here.

ASNE Names Winners of Local Heroes Contest

Suzanne Harris of Miramar Beach, Florida won the American Society of News Editors' Local Heroes contest. The contest honors individuals who fought tirelessly last year to make their state or local institutions more open and accessible.

When Walton County commissioners did not respond to Harris' e-mail requests for public documents, she sued. As part of the settlement, the commissioners placed the county under court scrutiny to comply with the state's Public Records Act, agreed to hold training annually for public officials and key staff, to use only official county e-mail accounts in its transactions, and to designate an employee as records management liaison officer.

Veronica Silkes of Landing, New Jersey, took second-place for founding Concerned Active Residents of Mount Arlington, a group of citizens concerned about tax increases ad expenditures in Mount Arlington. The group gathers public documents and shares information about borough affairs on its website.

Phil and Ellen Winter of Waynesboro, Virginia took third place. The pair gathered more than 100 pages of government documents after becoming concerned when they noticed the city failed to deposit their property tax check promptly. The documents showed the city treasurer allegedly had mishandled about $400,000 in city and state taxpayer money. Their tip to the local newspaper resulted in the treasurer's defeat in the fall election.

For more about the winners, click here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunshine and Shadows - Results of the National Security Archive FOIA Audit

The National Security Archive at George Washington University released its latest government-wide FOIA Audit. The Audit reveals that, despite the Obama administration's calls for greater governmental transparency, the federal government still has a long way to go on FOIA reform effort. For example, the Audit found:

  • Ancient requests--as old as 18 years--still persist in the FOIA system.
  • A minority of agencies have responded to the Obama and Holder Memos with concrete changes in their FOIA practices.
  • Only four out of 28 agencies reporting--including Holder's own Justice Department--show releases up and denials down under the FOIA.
Read more about the Audit here.

Fear and Speculation Spur Proposals to Limit Transparency

The Spokesman-Review opines the Idaho Legislature is working with the wrong presumption with respect to proposed laws aimed at creating additional public records exemptions.

Senate Bill 1346 would block the nutrient management plans for concentrated animal feeding operations, the feedlots where cattle are fattened before slaughter. The Idaho Cattle Association argues state inspection reports could contain trade secrets and other proprietary information.

House Bill 531 would keep secret the names of those receiving hunting and fishing licenses for fear that such information could be used to harass the license-holders.

As The Spokesman-Review argues, "Gutting public records law ought to be the last resort, not the first. These bills have it backward."

Read more here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

University of Iowa Says Consultant's Documents Not Subject to Open Records Law

The University of Iowa denies that records sought by The Press-Citizen are subject to the state's Open Records law. The news group sought documents and correspondence from a consulting firm that helped the university draft new strategic communications and media response polices and communications consulting for an amount in excess of $250,000 in 2009.

The Press-Citizen sought documents and correspondence from the consultants and UI officials that related to the media relations strategies, practices and policies and tactical advice for specific circumstances or interviews. The university maintains that the Open Records law does not apply because the consulting firm is an external agency that was not performing a governmental function.

Kathleen Richardson of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council says the university's position violates the Open Records law and undermines a 2005 Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

For more, click here.

Four States Propose Restrictions to 911 Call Recordings

In a troublesome shift away from transparency, Alabama, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida are proposing legislation to limit the media's access to 911 call recordings.

Alabama calls for all emergency recordings to be private and exempt from freedom of information laws unless a court order issues, although transcripts could be available.

Ohio would restrict 911 recordings, banning public access to recordings while allowing transcripts to be read on air. Ohio would levy monetary fines of $10,000 for violations by media outlets.

Wisconsin would keep all audio recordings confidential and would make transcripts available upon request. A proposed amendment would allow the media to inspect, but not copy or disseminate transcripts.

Florida would make audio recordings confidential unless obtained by court order, and would only release transcripts after 60 days.

For more information, click here.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council Opee Awards Announced

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council announced its fourth annual Opee Awards to people and institutions that have had an impact on open government in the state.

The winners are:

Political Openness Advocate of the Year (the "Popee"): J.B. Van Hollen

Citizen Openness Advocate of the Year (the "Copee"): Daniel O. Wilson

Media Openness Advocate(s) of the Year (the "Mopee") (tie): The UWM Post and the Green Bay Press-Gazette

Open Records Scoop of the Year (the "Scoopee"): Tony Galli

No Friend of Openness Award (the "Nopee"): The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA)

Dumbest Open Government Decision (the "Dopee"): Wisconsin Department of Corrections

Fore more about the winners, click here.

Mark Caramanica Named New FOI Director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced its new Freedom of Information Director is Mark R. Caramanica. Caramanica is a former trial attorney who is finishing his doctorate in Mass Communications at the University of Florida, where he also earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a law degree and master's degree in mass communication.

For more, click here.

Dash Cam Catches Police Excessive Force Incident

A Texan car dealer is suing the Carrollton police department after he was roughed up in a parking lot. The dealer, Shomari Staten, obtained the video through an open records request. The incident was caught on the squad dash cam.

Watch the video here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

And The Rosemary Goes to...

This year's Rosemary Award for worst open government performance goes to the Federal Chief Information Officers Council, the senior officials who have never addressed the failure of the federal government to save its e-mail electronically.

The Rosemary Award is named after President Nixon's secretary who erased 18 1/2 minutes of a crucial Watergate tape.

For more about this years "winners," click here.

File this Under "Ridiculous" - Suing Citizens to Silence Complaints

An Arizona school district claims it has been so harassed by repeated public records requests that it has sued four community members, claiming they have abused the public records request system by filing more than 100 public records requests.

In its Complaint, the Congress Elementary School District also claims the community members are "engaged in a coordinated campaign to harass and impede the functioning" of the school system by filing more than ten complaints with the state's Board of Education, the County Sheriff, the Fire Marshall, the Ombudsman, and the Attorney General.

The defendants say the lawsuit is an illegal attempt to silence citizens who have questioned the district's policies and spending practices.

Read more about the suit here, including a link to the Complaint filed by the school district.

Overhaul of Florida Sunshine Law Passes Senate Committee

A Florida Senate committee approved a bill to overhaul the state's Sunshine Law. The unanimous vote came despite objections lodged by lobbyists for the Florida League of Cities to key provisions of the bill, including the proposal to end charges for redaction of personal information as required by law by January 1, 2013.

Read more about it here.

Florida House Committee Approves Bill to Ban Release of 911 Calls

The Florida House Governmental Affairs Policy Committee voted to approve a bill to block access to 911 recordings. The measure would allow access to only the transcript of emergency calls after a 60 day wait.

The Florida AP reports Gov. Charlie Crist has indicated he would not sign the bill, if passed by the state legislature.

Click here for more information.

Oklahoma Considers Withholding Information in Autopsy Reports

The Oklahoma House passed a bill that would amend the state's Open Records Act to allow the Office of Chief Medical Examiner to withhold certain information in an autopsy report when the manner of death is homicide, unknown or pending. Under the proposed measure, only when the information is available in court proceedings would the information become public.

The Oklahoma Press Association favors a measure that would balance law enforcement's need for time to investigate matters with the access to information for accurate reports in the media.

Click here for more.

Michigan Court of Appeals Allows Access to Voting Records

The Michigan Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to require the secretary of state's office to turn over individual voting records from the state's 2008 presidential primary under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The court's ruling grants a political consultant access to presidential primary voters' names and which party's ballots they took.

For more information, click here.

Citizens Risk Lives Seeking Information in India

Since 2005, India's Right to Information (RTI) Act gives citizens the power to ask for information from any level of government. But freedom of information activists have been threatened, beaten, bullied, and even killed in the pursuit of information. Nonetheless, advocates say RTI provides a starting point to ending corruption in India.

For more information, click here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Florida Bill Proposes Significant Public Records Reform

A proposed "Open Government Act" could make it easier to get public records in Florida. The result of Gov. Charlie Crist's Commission on Open Government, the measure would be a sweeping move toward transparency in government.

The Palm Beach Post reports the bill would:
  • Require government officials to get training in open records and meetings.
  • Bar agencies from charging for copies of records that take less than 30 minutes to duplicate.
  • Prohibit agencies from charging for redaction of information that is personal in nature and exempt from public records laws and prohibit charging for any redaction fees of any records after Jan. 1, 2013.
  • Require that all new exemptions be reviewed every 10 years after the initial five-year-review currently required by state law.
  • Set uniform penalties, and attorneys' fees, for public records violations.
  • Give circuit court judges jurisdiction to issue injunctions to enforce open records laws.
Read more about it here.

Request for Crime Scene Photos Spurs Move to Tighten Georgia's Open Records Act

Hustling to pass a law to further limit access to public records, the Georgia legislature is trying to head-off a request from an author hired by Hustler magazine to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. The Augusta Chronicle reports that open government advocates say the state does not need any more exemptions to its Open Records Act and that existing law already gives GBI sufficient legal authority to deny the request.

House Speaker David Ralston's maneuver comes as a result of veteran true-crimes author Fred Rosen's request for crime scene photos depicting the nude and decapitated body of University of Georgia graduate Meredith Emerson. Emerson had been beaten and killed by a man who abducted her on Blood Mountain in north Georgia two years ago. Rosen said he made the request as part of his research for an upcoming article for the magazine. Hustler magazine is reportedly considering legal action.

Click here to read more.

Eagerly Anticipating a Ruling on the Bloomberg/Fed Dispute

After hearing arguments in January, court watchers are awaiting a decision from the federal appellate court in the dispute between Bloomberg LP and the Federal Reserve regarding the news organization's request for access to a loan-by-loan accounting of its emergency bailout to banks. Bloomberg seeks information on how much was borrowed, when, on what terms, and in exchange for what collateral.

Despite a win for Bloomberg in the lower courts, the Fed has still not provided the records. The Fed argues that if such records were public, it would cause greater harm to the banks, could lead to bank panic, and could weaken the banking system further by making banks hesitant to seek future aid from the lender of last resort.

For Bloomberg, the lawsuit represents a principled stand for transparency and a tribute to its late reporter, Mark Pittman, who spearheaded efforts to obtain the information under FOIA before his sudden death in November 2009.

For more information, click here.

Toyota's Not Sharing its "Black Box" Data

The Associated Press reviewed lawsuits nationwide and interviewed auto crash experts, and found that Toyota has blocked access to data stored in event data recorders, or EDRs. These EDRs are akin to airline "black boxes" and could help explain crashes blamed on sudden unintended acceleration.

The news organization found the information disclosed by the car maker has been inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. This "black box" information is emerging as a critical legal issue facing the company amid the recall of 8 million cars.

Toyota says it does share the EDR information with government regulators.

For more, read here.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Maine Lawmakers Think Restricted Access Could Prevent Fraud

Maine lawmakers have proposed restricting public access to birth and marriage records as a way to combat fraud and identity theft. The lawmakers are considering restricting access despite any evidence that misuse of birth or marriage records have lead to any cases of identity theft or fraud in the state.

Read more about it here.

Proposed Law Riddled with Misguided Symbolism

A great editorial from The Seattle Times on the misguided symbolism of a proposed law that would exempt personal information on law-enforcement employee's from the state's Public Disclosure Act. The proposed law is redundant of existing state law that already protects public employees' home addresses, home phone numbers, and Social Security numbers.

The House Majority Leader says the legislation should be enacted for its symbolism, as a gesture of appreciation for the law enforcement community, which has lost police officers in recent killings.

South Dakota Lawmakers Don't Report Travel Paid for by Special-Interest Groups

From the ArgusLeader.com comes this report on the lack of required reporting for South Dakota lawmakers' travel paid for by business or special-interest groups. South Dakota does not require lawmakers to report how much money pays for such travel or which corporations are involved.

South Dakota lawmakers have been debating whether to put more restrictions on taxpayer-funded out-of-state travel.

The Tiger Woods Protection Act?

The Florida House Governmental Affairs Policy Committee will consider a bill that would block the release of 911 tapes and exempt them as public records. The proposal would allow only transcripts of 911 calls, but not the recordings, to be available 60 days after a request. Some are calling the bill the Tiger Woods Protection Act, noting how the November 2009 tapes gained through the state's open government laws lead to embarrassment for the professional golfer.

Under the current law, names, addresses and other identifying information is exempt from release.

Open government advocates say access to the recordings is necessary to gauge whether emergency service providers handle and respond to calls properly and in a timely manner. A 2009 three-part series by the Herald-Tribune shows how access to 911 calls is necessary to reveal systemic flaws by emergency call workers.

For more on the bill, click here.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Proposed Laws Would Add Exemptions to Oklahoma's Sunshine Laws

Oklahomans might have less access to information if several bills pending in the legislature are passed. The Durant Daily Democrat reports there are at least six bills pending that would add exemptions to the state's sunshine laws, preventing access to autopsy reports, birth dates of public employees, municipal court information and records from the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.

Read more about the proposed exemptions here.

Nevada Supreme Court to Decide if Governor's E-mails are Public

The Nevada Supreme Court heard arguments Monday whether to overturn a lower court's ruling that Governor Jim Gibbons does not have to produce e-mails kept on the state e-mail system that are personal in nature.

The Reno Newspapers argued that the e-mails on the governor's state-issued e-mail account is subject to Nevada's Open Records law. A reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal had requested e-mail communications between Gibbons and 10 persons for the period before January and June 2008.

Read more about the case here.

Proposals to Strengthen Missouri's Sunshine Law

A Missouri lawmaker has proposed two bills to strengthen the state's Sunshine Law, including a provision that would add a fine of up to $8,000 for each person found guilty of a "purposeful violation" and a $1,000 fine for "knowingly" violating the law. The proposals also includes new record-keeping standards for governmental bodies, new requirements for public notice of certain meetings, and a required training session on the state's Sunshine Law for elected or appointed officials.

Critics say Missouri's Sunshine Law "just doesn't have any teeth" as it is now.

For more on the bills, click here.

Open Government Advocates Back Florida Suit

The NFOIC, the Florida First Amendment Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for Freedom of Information have backed a lawsuit by Preston Colby against the Board of County Commissioners in Highlands County, Florida with $3,000 in grant money to pay filing fees. The suit seeks hand-written notes taken during government meetings.

The matter went to trial in February 2010, but no decision has been rendered yet.

For more information, click here.

Oklahoma Senator Rethinks Support for Bill to Keep Birth Dates Private

Oklahoma Senate Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee (R-Oklahoma City) signaled that he has reconsidered his position on a bill to keep public employees' birth dates confidential. He, along with the rest of the Oklahoma Senate, voted in favor of Senate Bill 1753 without debate or questions.

The Oklahoman quotes Coffee as saying, "Upon further review, I think I would have changed my vote. I think you have to have access to that information and the First Amendment matters, like all of the Constitution. We need to preciously guard that. Are there abuses? Sure. Does that mean you don't protect the First Amendment and what it stands for? No, I don't think so."

For more on the status of Senate Bill 1753, read here.