Freedom of Information

CFO estimates for cost of releasing DC police body cam footage unsubstantiated, groups say

Freedom of Information | Commentary | June 29, 2015
June 29, 2015

The following was prepared by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, District of Columbia Office of Open Government/Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, D.C. Police Union, D.C. Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, in April, proposed outfitting every patrol officer with a body-worn camera to record interactions with the public. She announced the expansion at her State of the District address, claiming “[a]ccountability is embedded, and will be embedded in everything this administration does.” The goals were to improve interactions with civilians, assist investigations of officer misconduct, and promote public trust of the MPD. The cost: $5.1 million in fiscal year 2016 and a blanket exemption denying the public access to the videos.

FOIA trial offers rare look into how FBI searches records, responds to requests

Jacob Donnelly | Freedom of Information | News | June 18, 2015
June 18, 2015

Evidence from an ongoing Freedom of Information Act trial has shed light on how the Federal Bureau of Investigation handles FOIA requests from the public.

The case, Trentadue v. FBI, was filed by Jesse Trentadue in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah after the FBI failed to turn over videotapes of the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.

In the Reporters Committee's experience, it is rare for FOIA cases to go to trial - cases are usually settled or disposed of though pre-trial motions.

D.C. Circuit rules in favor of Prison Legal News' appeal against Bureau of Prisons

Jacob Donnelly | Freedom of Information | News | June 12, 2015
June 12, 2015

The Federal Bureau of Prisons's categorical justification of redactions in a freedom of information suit filed by Prison Legal News was not appropriate, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last week.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief in the case.

In FOIA cases, the government has the burden of showing that an exemption is warranted. The prison bureau initially produced no records and denied PLN’s request for a fee waiver after PLN filed a FOIA request in 2003 seeking all documents related to the money the bureau paid in connection with lawsuits and claims brought against the bureau from January 1, 1996, to July 31, 2003.

Cybersecurity legislation raises concerns for journalists

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Kristin Bergman

President Obama's 2015 State of the Union address urged Congress to pass legislation to address cyber threats: “If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable.”

After years of proposed, but ultimately unsuccessful, legislation, the “year of the data breach” and executive pressure have pushed Congress closer to passing federal cybersecurity legislation. Though focused on the balance between information sharing and privacy in order to address national security — a goal that seems to primarily affect consumers, data holders, and the government — these bills have great implications for journalists and their sources.

Bodycams: seeing, but not being seen

Reporters face challenges in obtaining police body camera videos
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Adam Marshall

Police departments across the nation are implementing body-worn cameras (also called BWCs, or bodycams) in an effort to improve community relations and create a more objective record of officers’ activities. As recent news events have proved, these videos can provide crucial information about what transpired in a situation. Gaining access to bodycam videos, however, is proving to be a challenging endeavor for journalists.

Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously rejects effort to halt public records lawsuit for execution records

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | June 11, 2015
June 11, 2015

On Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously denied an effort to overturn a lower court’s ruling that cleared the way for a lawsuit to obtain records on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett.

Ziva Branstetter, an Oklahoma-based reporter for The Frontier, and Tulsa World filed the lawsuit in December against Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson for withholding public records requested under the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

Arkansas housing director criminally convicted for violating public records law

Kelly Swanson | Freedom of Information | News | June 11, 2015
June 11, 2015

Little Rock Metropolitan Housing Alliance Executive Director Rodney Forte was charged last November with violating Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Last Thursday, Forte was found guilty and convicted of a Class C misdemeanor.

Judge Alice F. Lightle described Forte’s actions as a “negligent violation of the FOIA” and sentenced him to pay a $100 fine and an additional $140 in court costs.

Advocates push back against FOIA exemptions for bodycam footage

Kelly Swanson | Freedom of Information | News | June 9, 2015
June 9, 2015

As states begin to implement laws requiring police officers to wear body cameras, lawmakers now struggle with the question of who should be given access to the recordings. Many states have already proposed legislation that will withhold bodycam footage from the public. As outraged civil liberties activists try to prevent this legislation from passing, many are forcing state legislatures to consider bills that allow for a greater degree of public access.

In many states, citizens have the ability to request copies of footage from police worn body cameras through their state’s public record law. However, fear of privacy issues that this new technology may create is causing a rush to propose broad categorical FOIA exemptions of body camera footage, perpetuating the current barrier between many law enforcement officials and the public.

Department of Transportation to continue mandating oil train disclosures, but states vary widely on requirements

Jacob Donnelly | Freedom of Information | News | June 5, 2015
June 5, 2015

Regulators will keep rules requiring the public disclosure of certain information about trains transporting crude oil intact, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced last week.

The Department of Transportation had previously announced on May 1 that it would phase out the temporary rules, which were enacted on May 7, 2014, a week after a major oil train derailment in Lynchburg, Va.

Hearing examines FOIA reform, and whether the act is an effective tool

Kelly Swanson | Freedom of Information | News | June 5, 2015
June 5, 2015

The question of whether the federal Freedom of Information Act is an effective tool was hotly debated at a two-day hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this week. Requesters answered emphatically that the FOIA process is broken, but agency employees disagreed.

FOIA requesters including reporters and watchdog groups testified before the committee on Tuesday, addressing the FOIA barriers they’ve encountered, including backlogs, request delays, excessive redactions, and unreasonable fees.