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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Delaware FOIA: Bill to strengthen law passes through the House

from Delmarvanow.com: DOVER — To address a long-running issue with the state’s Freedom of Information Act, Attorney General Beau Biden strongly supported legislation championed by Senate President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca, House Speaker Robert Gilligan and Sen. Karen Peterson to strengthen FOIA.

Senate Bill 283 allows the Attorney General’s office to intervene on behalf of citizens in FOIA disputes with state agencies if the agency fails to comply with the office’s advice to produce the requested records.

Under current law, citizens themselves are required to file a lawsuit in FOIA disputes with state agencies.

Read more here.

DoD updates Open Government plan

The Department of Defense has expanded a website outlining its Open Government plan as well as the plan itself, it said Tuesday.

The move is in response to feedback that the agency did not provide a detailed enough version of the plan when it was released in April, according to the agency. On its Open Government website, the DoD has added a "Link Library" to better enable people to find information about its plan to use technology to be more transparent in its activities and engage with U.S. citizens.

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Supreme Court says states may disclose petition signatories

from OMB Watch -- On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that states may publicly disclose referendum petition signatures. The case, Doe v. Reed, centers on the public's right to know who signed petitions related to Referendum 71, a 2009 attempt to overturn Washington State’s expanded domestic partner law, which gives gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married couples.

The State of Washington argued that the names of petition signatories should be disclosed upon request, as required by the state's Public Records Act. It further argued that such disclosure helps to sort out whether fraudulent signatures were included on petitions to reach the required number of signatories to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot.

The plaintiffs, who included several individual citizens and an anti-gay political action committee, argued that a constitutional right to anonymity for petition signatories always exists. They also argued that even if the Court does not recognize a broad constitutional right, it should recognize that a right exists in this particular case due to the harassment and abuse to which the petition signatories could possibly be exposed...

The Court did not find that a constitutional right to anonymity for petition signatories always exists. Rather, it held that the law permits disclosure of petition signatories. "Such disclosure does not, as a general matter, violate the First Amendment," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the Court’s majority opinion.

Read more here

No reason to ‘rethink’ new FOIA

From The State Journal-Register -- For decades, government bodies across Illinois became adept at using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act as a handy tool for withholding information from the public.

Until Dec. 31, 2009, the law originally intended to be a window into government was used more as a dead-bolted door to lock out the public. Just about any public request for documents and information could be denied or delayed infinitely based on numerous exemptions and loopholes deftly exploited by public bodies...

That changed on Jan. 1, when the state’s new Freedom of Information Act went into effect...

More than anything, the new law represents a striking change in culture regarding open government in Illinois. Where it had long been assumed that the law favors a public body’s need to keep information secret, the opposite is now true.

And guess what? A lot of public bodies don’t like it one bit.

Read more here.

Right-to-Know law gives India’s poor a lever

It has now become clear that India’s 1.2 billion citizens have been newly empowered by [a[ far-reaching law granting them the right to demand almost any information from the government. The law is backed by stiff fines for bureaucrats who withhold information, a penalty that appears to be ensuring speedy compliance.

The law has not, as some activists hoped, had a major effect on corruption.


Still, the law has become part of the fabric of rural India in the five years since it was passed, and has clearly begun to tilt the balance of power, long skewed toward bureaucrats and politicians.

Read more here

Colleges make millions selling access and addresses to Bank of America

Some of the nation’s largest and most elite universities stand to gain millions of dollars from selling the names and addresses of students and alumni to credit card companies while granting the companies special access to school events, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.

The schools and their alumni associations are entitled to receive payments that multiply as students use their cards. Some colleges can receive bonuses when students incur debt.

The little-known agreements have enriched schools and some banks at a time when young women and men already are borrowing at record levels, raising questions about whether such collegiate and corporate alliances are in the best interests of students.

The story is one in a series of articles on student debt produced by the Investigative Fund.

Read more here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Number of news organizations covering federal agencies has fallen since 2003

In the late 1990s, AJR began to systematically track coverage of federal departments and agencies through the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. One of the goals was to determine how coverage by newspapers and wire services had changed over time.

To do that, AJR selected departments and agencies that deal with everyday issues such as food safety, taxes, airline policy, the economy, veterans' benefits and workplace rules. Four times--in 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2004--we checked to see whether they were covered by full-time beat reporters and, if so, by which news outlets. [They] defined full time as two-thirds of a reporter's time covering the department and closely related issues.

[They] did that again this year, thanks to a grant from the Open Society Institute, on the heels of a recession that brought on or accelerated layoffs, buyouts and bureau closings.

Read more here.

Jindal vetoes bill opening oil leak records

Gov. Bobby Jindal late Friday vetoed a bill that was overwhelmingly approved by the Louisiana Legislature and would have made public records related the BP Deepwater Horizons oil rig disaster.

Jindal wrote in his veto message that he thought allowing the public to see the records might undermine the state’s legal position.

State Sen. Robert Adley, who added the provision to House Bill 37 on the Senate floor, unsuccessfully attempted to open more records that Jindal currently keeps secret.

Read more here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Knight FOI Fund supports another Freedom of Information suit

Columbia, Mo. and San Rafael, Ca. (June 24, 2010) – The First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), has filed suit against the Los Angeles City Council over the Council’s failure to tell the public, in advance, that it was about to consider and vote on layoffs of thousands of government workers. FAC’s suit, supported by NFOIC's Knight FOI Fund, alleges a “pattern and practice” of violations of the Brown Act and requests declaratory and injunctive relief.

At issue is a City Council special meeting on February 18 at which the Council voted to reaffirm a prior commitment to eliminate 1,000 city jobs and, on top of that, to lay off 3,000 more city employees. Such a controversial action normally would be expected to draw a large crowd of citizens to the Council meeting, many of whom would request to speak about major layoffs. But that did not happen at the February 18 meeting.

The reason? The required public notice for the meeting didn’t give a clue about impending layoffs.

Read more here.

Court of Appeals rules some concealed-handgun permit lists are public records

Oregon, June 23, 2010 -- Some lists bearing the names of holders of concealed-handgun permits must be disclosed under the state public-records law, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled.

The case arose when the Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford and others sought to obtain lists of people with those permits in 2007. But Sheriff Mike Winters declined to make public the records of an estimated 6,500 permit holders in Jackson County, prompting the lawsuit.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals upheld a 2008 circuit court ruling in favor of the newspaper.

Read more here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kagan sought secrecy in 4 of 5 open government cases

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's arguments as solicitor general in several cases on government secrecy were at odds with a promise of transparency made by her boss and top client, President Barack Obama.

In four of five cases she dealt with involving the Freedom of Information Act, Kagan argued in favor of secrecy, Justice Department documents show. In those four lawsuits, the Supreme Court took her side and let lower court rulings in the government's favor stand.


In the most widely publicized freedom of information case, Kagan successfully argued that the Supreme Court should overturn a New York appeals court ruling that directed the government to release photographs of foreign detainees being abused by their U.S. captors. The American Civil Liberties Union sought the photos; Obama and the Pentagon opposed their release.

Read more here.

Missouri Senate candidate calls for lawmakers to open records to public

JEFFERSON CITY, MO. -- U.S. Senate Candidate Robin Carnahan called for the records of federal lawmakers to be open to the public.

During a campaign stop Monday in Jefferson City, Carnahan called for an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act.

The federal open-records law currently applies to the white house and executive agencies, but not to the U.S. House and Senate.

Read more here.

Millions in SAFETEA-LU transit earmarks are unspent

Washington, D.C. -- Nearly $120 million in Federal Transit Administration earmarks that were introduced and approved by Congress have sat untouched in FTA accounts for years and have now lapsed, according to an FTA list.

The list of unallocated earmarks, which the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that funds for these projects should have been used by September 30, 2009 at the latest, but due to various reasons, were never spent.


The $119.2 million in unspent transit funds are from over 150 earmarks Congress approved in 2006 and 2007 that had been set aside under SAFETEA-LU for communities to purchase new buses, plan and build light rail and bus rapid transit projects, and fund state and local evaluations of transit projects.

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bills would chip away at N.J. public's right to know

There is an on-going battle being waged between record keepers and record seekers. The Star-Ledger and citizens often go to court to force reluctant agencies to turn over records they are required to release under the Open Public Records Act [OPRA].

Meanwhile, OPRA constantly is under attack by legislators who apparently don’t want the public to see what government is doing.

Two Assembly bills are the latest attempts to weaken OPRA. One would set per-page copying costs for OPRA records at 10 cents per letter-size page and 15 cents per legal-size page...

But here’s the kicker: An agency could charge those fees for documents delivered electronically.

Read more here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Supreme Court of Canada rules access to information not a constitutional right

The Supreme Court of Canada has taken a small step toward recognizing that citizens sometimes need access to government documents to exercise freedom of expression, but stopped short of calling it a broad constitutional right.

On a practical level, Thursday’s ruling means that, after 13 years, it is still uncertain whether the public will ever learn details of an OPP report into the botched prosecution of two men charged with murdering reputed mobster Domenic Racco.

On a broader level, the long-awaited decision leaves Canada eclipsed by countries such as South Africa, Norway and Bulgaria, which have made access to information a component of their constitutions.

“We don’t have that and our Supreme Court isn’t willing to take us there either,” said Paul Schabas, a lawyer representing the Canadian Newspaper Association and other media organizations intervening in the case.

Read the rest here.

Bill would open Fannie, Freddie to information requests

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, thinks the internal workings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be open to public scrutiny.

Chaffetz introduced a bill Thursday that would make the two government-sponsored mortgage enterprises — now under conservatorship by the federal government — subject to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Read the rest here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Who Owns Public Crime Data?

from the folks at techdirt:

We were recently tipped off to a case in the federal courts that raises all sorts of legal issues about some questionable interpretations of the law -- many of which we've discussed here recently. It involves a Utah company, named Public Engines, suing a competitor, named Report See. Public Engines, it appears, contracts with various police departments around the country to get crime data from them, and then they put that data online in various formats. Its main business tends to be working with law enforcement and providing them software and services around that data. But, it also presents the data publicly on the site CrimeReports.com. Apparently, law enforcement agencies pay Public Engines to provide data to the site.


Along comes Report See.

Read more here.

Judge orders records’ release

Green County, AR -- Greene County Circuit Judge Brent Davis ordered the Greene County Tech School District to release documents related to the suspension of several assistant football coaches after a November 2009 playoff trip to Monticello.

The Daily Press requested the documents under the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in December 2009 and the district denied the request, citing an unwarranted invasion of privacy and no compelling public interest in the documents’ release. The newspaper sued the district in February, alleging a willful violation of FOIA. The district responded by claiming the provision of the law cited in the documents’ request was unconstitutional.

After a hearing May 18, Davis requested the district to provide the documents at issue to him for an in camera review.

Read the rest here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

NFOIC Hires Full-time Executive Director

Columbia, Mo. (June 17, 2010) – The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), a nonpartisan coalition of open government groups and advocates, announced today that it has hired Ken Bunting as its new, full-time executive director. Bunting will oversee all daily operations of the NFOIC, including fundraising, coalition building, and managing the Knight Freedom of Information Fund, a new initiative created by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support FOI litigation. Bunting will officially assume his new role on July 1, 2010.

As the first full-time executive director of NFOIC, Bunting will administer funds for the Knight FOI Fund and oversee pass-through grants to state freedom of information groups, work daily to strengthen the work of its member coalitions, coordinate an annual conference, publicize the efforts of the NFOIC and its affiliates, and collaborate with a board of directors to chart the future of the organization.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Freedom Of Information Act Request concerning Tulsa Zoo giraffe denied

TULSA, OK -- The USDA is conducting a criminal probe surrounding the death of a giraffe at the Tulsa Zoo, possibly involving the transport company that delivered the giraffe to Tulsa. The Tulsa Zoo giraffe suffered a broken neck, apparently during the trip.

The revelation of a criminal probe comes just after the same company delivered a giraffe to a zoo in Missouri, which immediately upon arrival was euthanized because of a broken neck.

More here.

Who gave $1.5 million to pay down the national debt?

from NPR's Planet Money -- Every year, people give the government millions of dollars in gifts to reduce the national debt.

The government reports the total value of the contributions, but it doesn't say anything about the size of each donation, or how many gifts there are.

We wanted to learn more, so we submitted a Freedom of Information Act to the Treasury Department asking for details; they responded with a spreadsheet listing the amount of every donation they've received for the past five years.

The details are pretty interesting. ... more than 1,500 people gave gifts of $100 or less (including a bunch of jokers who donated one cent). But there were some big donations as well — 17 gifts were for more than $100,000. The biggest donation was for more than $1.5 million.

More here.

FOIA surge shows public’s interest in transparency

Downers Grove, IL — Though they didn’t invoke the phrase “unfunded mandate,” Downers Grove officials are worried about how much implementing a revised law is costing.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act was enhanced last year by the General Assembly and became effective in January. Public officials now have five days to respond to FOIA requests, as opposed to seven. The first 50 pages requested must be provided for free, and the price of reproducing any additional black-and-white, standard-size paper is capped at 15 cents per page.

Downers Grove has experienced a substantial increase in FOIA requests this year. In March 2009, the village received 37 such requests. In March this year, there were 159 requests.

The village has spent more than $38,000 so far this year responding to FOIA requests. Given that we’re not even halfway through 2010, this total could become excessive.

More here.

UVa at center of battles over climate change

The ideological battle over global warming that heated up with last fall’s “Climategate” e-mail controversy has spilled over to the grounds of the University of Virginia.

At the center of the latest skirmish are two former U.Va. professors who represent opposing views on the dangers of climate change.

U.Va. has before it separate demands for information — a civil subpoena from the state attorney general and a Freedom of Information request from Greenpeace. Both resulted from the leak in November of more than a thousand e-mail messages hacked from the climate research unit of the University of East Anglia in England.

U.Va. last month filed a petition in Albemarle County Circuit Court seeking to block Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s civil investigative demands, or CIDs, for climate research by former U.Va. professor Michael Mann.

The university has sought an extension to the FOI request........

More here.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

FOI request yields identity of deputy

SUMMERVILLE, SC -- The Dorchester County Sheriff's Office released the name of a suspended deputy Thursday after a Freedom of Information request for records.

Deputy Jason Shrewsbury has been suspended, said Chief Deputy Sam Richardson. The deputy was suspended this week after he allegedly drove a patrol car to a bar where he drank while off duty. Richardson said he had talked with County Attorney John Frampton about the request from The Post and Courier, and the record of the suspension will be released after an internal affairs investigation is complete.

"We have absolutely no problem releasing that information," Richardson said.

More here.

Blagojevich arrest mug shot released

The United States Department of Justice has released the official booking photo of Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested at his Chicago home on Dec. 9, 2008 and later impeached and removed from office.

The release came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by WGN-Ch. 9.

The then-governor is seen in the jogging suit he was wearing on the morning of his arrest, when federal agents picked him up in the early hours.

More here.