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, December 30, 2010

A&M revisits ruling after outcry

from Chron.com:
Texas A&M University officials will take a second look at a controversial decision widely seen as an attempt to prevent student journalists at Tarleton State University from investigating their own school's public records.

Andrew Strong, A&M's general counsel, said Wednesday he wasn't aware of all of the facts when he crafted a letter that extended existing rules, which ban employees from abusing the Public Information Act, to include journalism students working on optional class assignments. Tarleton is part of the A&M University System.


The A&M rule, in effect since the mid-1990s, prohibits system employees from making public information requests of their employer. The rule was drafted after an employee used the law to make frivolous information requests, leaving A&M with the tab for the required research and compliance.

The regulation went unused until the fall semester.

Several Tarleton journalism students were part of The Light of Day project, a statewide initiative sponsored by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to teach them how to use open records requests to develop investigative articles.

The goal of the project, said FOI Foundation executive director Keith Elkins, was to gather public information, share it and report on it.
Read the rest here.

2010 Gov 2.0 Year in Review

from O'Reilly Radar:
While the progress of the White House Open Government Directive at federal agencies is important, as is action in Congress, there's a long road yet ahead in the United States and abroad. As John Wonderlich pointed out in his own look at 2010:
Obama’s Open Government Directive is at a crossroads (like other similar policies), and the changing majority in the House brings new opportunities for change (a 72 Hour Rule!), just as the outgoing majority brought their own new opportunities for transparency.
We're still very much in open government's beta period. Some efforts, like the State Department's Text Haiti program for the Red Cross or the "do-it-ourselves" platforms from groups like CrisisCommons, made a difference. Other efforts, partially represented by many open government plans in the throes of implementation, won't mature for months to come.
Read the rest here.

Setting government data free with ScraperWiki

from programmable web:
Civic minded hackers from all over the world recently organized themselves for action as a part of the International Open Government Hackathon. The team from Portland, Oregon decided to make use of a platform called ScraperWiki that can grab data from government websites and turn into more consumable formats via the ScraperWiki API....

The ScraperWiki work highlights a problem for governments that want to make data available to the public. Some data is currently available in obscure formats or is locked in HTML pages that cannot easily be consumed by web applications.

“ScraperWiki is a great way to demonstrate to governments that programmers will put in work to clean up messy data, in whatever format it is released. the more imporant issue is authorizing the release of the datasets, not worrying about what format they are released in,” said event organizer Max Ogden.
Read the rest here.

"Don't spy on us, FBI" say Minnesota activists

from Twin Cities Daily Planet:
By Bill Sorem, The Uptake -- It was a declassified FBI document that Lucia Wilkes Smith held up before a crowd of Minneapolis peace activists. It was declassified in name only because nearly every word on the dozen or so pages had been blacked out for national security reasons.

"The first letter I got from the FBI said 'we don't have anything on you', said Wilkes Smith a well-spoken gray-haired woman. She had made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of the FBI. The American Civil Liberties Union and others had urged her to file the request because the FBI had been spying on anti-war groups in Minnesota prior to and during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

"And then another letter came that said 'well we got a few pages, but they're classified'. And then eventually they declassified this and sent it to me." She held up the dozen or so pages with nearly every word blacked out.
Read the rest here.

National Archives debuts online search

from The Hill:
The National Archives and Records Administration is letting the public preview a new search tool that digs through the government's huge archive of public records.

Users visiting a prototype of the new site can search for everything from a child's letter to the president to the iconic image of WWII's Rosie the Riveter among more than 10.9 million permanent electronic records.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Obscenity letters sent after city stymied on sign

from the Times-News MagicValley.com:
(Twin Falls) -- Correspondence between city officials that was obtained by the Times-News shows there was no public record of complaints about adult stores Karnation and Enchantress, despite Twin Falls Police saying complaints spurred investigations into the sale of obscene materials.

The letters threatened action “up to and including arrest” if the stores did not comply with state law regarding the sale of obscene material, but didn’t specify which of the stores’ wares were obscene.

Instead, a cache of e-mails from city officials reveal a focus on the “Adult XXX” sign formerly on the front of Allen Nagel’s Smokin’ Head Smoke Shop and a variety of efforts to have it removed.


“This is not just going to be us against Allen Nagel, but could turn out to be us against the Porn industry,” [Officer Luke] Allen wrote on Nov. 19, adding that he wanted to see how other Idaho cities handle adult stores. “I think we need to not go in half cocked on this one or we may get bit in the ass.”
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

White House science memo seen as a step forward

from OMB Watch
The White House took another step toward securing the independence of federal scientists and ensuring the integrity of scientific information used in government decision making. President Obama's top science advisor, John Holdren, issued a memo to executive branch agencies outlining the administration's position on key scientific integrity issues and instructing agencies to implement reforms.

"The memo is a sign of relief for federal scientists who are unsure of their rights and whose work is too susceptible to manipulation," said Gary D. Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch.

The memo touts the importance of science in policy development and the need to maintain accuracy and integrity in government science. It plainly addresses the potentially corrosive role politics can play: "[P]olitical officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings," the memo says.

The memo, issued by Holdren in his position as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), requires agencies to report to OSTP within 120 days on the actions they have taken in support of the memo's goals. The memo specifically identifies three issues in need of agency attention: federal scientists' right to communicate their work to the media and the public; scientific and technical advice developed and presented by federal advisory committees; and professional development of federal scientists and engineers.

"Articulating a vision for scientific integrity is essential, but the devil will be in the details, some of which are lacking in this memo," Bass said. "Agencies need to act aggressively, and transparently, to advance a robust scientific integrity agenda."
Read the rest here.

N.M. launches prototype of open government website

from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
New Mexico went live Dec. 16 with a prototype of its planned online open government resource called the Sunshine Portal. The website, which is scheduled to go fully live on July 1, 2011, opens to journalists and citizens information that otherwise might take weeks or months to gain access to through information requests.

The site contains information related to the state's revenue, expenditures, investments, budget and employee salaries. The information contained on the site is provided by 11 state offices including the governor's office, the Department of Finance and Administration, the Department of Tax and Revenue and the State Personnel Office.

The information on the Sunshine Portal is organized into a spreadsheet and the site appears easy to navigate. Because it's a prototype, the site warns that the information currently available isn't necessarily accurate or up-to-date. New Mexico is soliciting comments on the site's functionality and will continue to do so as it is edited during the next seven months.

Sarah Welsh, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said she was "really impressed" with the site when she saw it. "The bill [that mandated the site's creation] was a framework and they really did a good job of making it user-friendly."
Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Whence the information age?

from The New York Review of Books:
By the way, how do we know people have been talking about the Information Age for fifty years? The OED tells us. The first recorded usage is attributed to “R. S. Leghorn in H. B. Maynard Top Managem. Handbk. xlvii. 1024,” 1960. He turns out to have been Richard Leghorn, founder of Itek Corporation, which made aerospace spy cameras, and later Chief of Intelligence and Reconnaissance Systems Development at the Pentagon. In a single sentence Leghorn invented the phrase and predicted it would not catch on:
Present and anticipated spectacular informational achievements will usher in public recognition of the “information age,” probably under a more symbolic title.
No better title has come along. Along with information age, the OED now recognizes information storage, information transfer, information processing, information retrieval, information architecture, information superhighway, plus (the bad news) information explosion, gap, warfare, overload, and fatigue.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Journalists guiltless after latest WikiLeaks releases, MU experts say

from the Missouri School of Journalism:
Columbia, Mo. (Dec. 2, 2010) -- With its major release of classified U.S. government information, the WikiLeaks organization has forced its way into international news again. Now that the secret diplomatic data have hit newspapers, broadcast media and Internet wires, University of Missouri free speech experts say that the journalists who have disseminated the information have not crossed legal or ethical boundaries.

Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law at the MU School of Law, and a free speech law expert, says that while the government would probably have a legal case against the source of the information leaks, legal precedent for disseminating the information is on the side of journalists.

"The bar that the Pentagon Papers case set for press injunction is so high that it would be extremely difficult for the government to meet it," Wells said. "There also is very little basis for criminally prosecuting publishers of such information. Journalism publishing has evolved so much with the Internet that it would be impossible to stop the spread of information, even if the government legally could."

Charles Davis, an associate professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and freedom of information expert, believes that while previous WikiLeaks disclosures were handled poorly, the organization made a positive effort to work through the proper professional channels in this instance.
Read the rest here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A&M limits faculty's open-records assignments

from statesman.com:
Faculty members and open-records advocates are criticizing a Texas A&M University System policy that bars professors from directing students to submit public information requests to A&M campuses and agencies.

Journalism teachers sometimes instruct students to file such requests under the Texas Public Information Act to gain experience using an important tool for reporters.


"It looks like something that would be in The Onion," Wanda Garner Cash, a clinical professor of journalism at the University of Texas, said , referring to the publication that employs satire and fiction for its take on the news.


Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said, "I don't know whether we should give the university's attorney kudos for his insanely inventive nuance, or a swift kick in the rear for pushing the administration into an indefensible stance from which they must surely back down."
Read the rest here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

EFF compares documents from similar FOIA requests

from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
EFF recently received documents in response to one of our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that demonstrate a disturbing trend: the FBI's arbitrary application of FOIA exemptions to hide, or in some instances, reveal, its unlawful activities.

Through a careful comparison of thousands of pages of documents we received from this FOIA request with the same documents we received from an earlier FOIA request, we found that redactions in many of these duplicated documents were strikingly different. In several cases, the FBI redacted more information in later-produced documents than it did in earlier-produced documents. In other cases, the FBI redacted differing amounts of information when it produced two copies of the same report in response to the same FOIA request.

Sometimes the agency blocked out whole paragraphs, while at other times it blocked out only the key words that explain the details of its acts. What is interesting is that the FBI claimed the same FOIA exemptions in each version; it just applied them differently.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Loopholes already being sought for earmark ban

from the Sunlight Foundation Blog:
Some House Republicans are already looking for a way around the ban on earmarks imposed on the next Congress. These members are rapidly trying to come up with a new definition for earmarks, or directed spending, to skirt the ban.

Politico reports, “[S]ome Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects. While transportation earmarks are probably the most notorious — think “Bridge to Nowhere” — there is talk about tweaking the very definition of “earmark.”


If Congress is at all serious about reforming earmarks they need to do something about the transparency of earmarks. This is especially true if they aren’t as serious as they say they are about a ban.
Read the rest here.

Court allows broadcast in Calif. same-sex marriage appeal

from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) allowed the live broadcast Monday of more than two hours of oral arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriages.

The hearing before the three-judge panel is the latest legal step in the case brought by two same-sex couples to challenge California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution enacted by voters in 2008.

In August, a federal court in San Francisco ruled that Proposition 8 violated the federal constitution. That ruling, by Judge Vaughn Walker, came after a trial that, by order of the U.S. Supreme Court, could not be broadcast to the public.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rebuffed Walker’s plan to broadcast the trial, ruling that the broadcasting would conflict with court policy and procedural rules. The Supreme Court also noted the possible chilling effect on witnesses.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision to broadcast Monday's hearing did not raise the same issues.

Read the rest here.