Freedom of Information

Mining for data

Searching government agencies for industrial resources
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Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Two miners died in a sudden expulsion of coal and rock during a mining operation at a West Virginia coal mine in May, and the reporter covering the event still does not have the inspection records of the previously-cited mine.

The Charleston Gazette’s coal mine reporter Ken Ward Jr. interviewed mine operators, government officials and miners about the disaster that struck Brody Coal Mine No. 1 on the evening of May 12, but he is still waiting for a response from the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the form of mine inspection reports.

“I don’t have much hope of seeing those [documents] for many more months after this,” Ward said.

Anatomy of a Brief

A detailed look at Berger v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
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Emily Grannis

In late June, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in an intermediate appellate court in New York addressing the difficult balancing of public interests and personal privacy in freedom of information cases.

Public interest vs. privacy

Most freedom of information laws in this country have some form of exemption that protects from release information that is acutely personal (Social Security numbers, for example, or the contents of an individual’s medical file). These privacy exemptions, though, are not absolute. There are times when the public interest in a piece of information is so high (or the personal privacy interest is so low) that the government will have to release that information.

Access to mug shots gets close look across the country

Cover Story
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Emily Grannis

Sites that sell mugshots are under fire nationwide.

In response to the increased posting of mug shots online, particularly on websites that charge individuals to remove the photos from the site, state and federal officials have been working to limit public access to mug shots. Some of these efforts have come through legislation introduced at the state level, while others have been agency decisions at the federal level.

Federal and state officials have argued that publishing a person’s mug shot before they are convicted of a crime, or continuing to publish it once their record has been expunged, creates a lasting and unfair impression of them.

Comments to Food and Nutrition Services on release of SNAP data

August 28, 2014

The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has requested public comment on a proposal that could make aggregated food stamp redemption data public record under FOIA. The questions FNS posed have to do with whether such data at the individual store level should be considered exempt under (b)(4) as a confidential business record. The Reporters Committee urged FNS to recognize that this information is public and not exempt under any FOIA exemption.

North Jersey Media Group v. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office

July 21, 2014

A FOIA request concerning a criminal investigation of a priest over a sexual abuse allegation was denied by prosecutors who said they would not disclose whether an investigation was going on. We filed an amicus brief joined by 25 other news organizations. We argued that a "neither confirm nor deny" response is not appropriate for state government records requests, as it was developed at the federal level to protect national security interests and has since morphed into a broad and damaging secrecy tool.

Supreme Court allows execution without disclosure of drug information

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Freedom of Information | News | July 23, 2014
July 23, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court prevented an Arizona death row inmate from delaying his execution date in order to receive information on the drugs to be used in his execution.

The denial overturns a decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) that ruled capital prisoner Joseph Wood’s requests for information on the drugs the state planned to use to execute him had sufficient merit to delay his execution, scheduled for Wednesday.

The state of Arizona asked the full Ninth Circuit court to review the panel's decision, but the circuit court refused Monday to hear it in front of its full 11-judge panel. The state then took its appeal to the Supreme Court, which also refused to hear the appeal but did lift the Ninth Circuit stay to allow Wood’s execution to go forward.

Federal appeals court finds death row prisoners might have a right to information on lethal injections

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Freedom of Information | News | July 21, 2014
July 21, 2014

The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) granted a death row inmate a delay in execution so he could receive information about his execution protocol, marking the first time a federal appeals court indicated there might be a right to know details about the drugs used in an execution.

On Saturday, the divided three-judge panel reversed a U.S. District Court of Arizona decision that denied Joseph Wood the right to know the credentials of his executioners and the source of the drugs to be used on him.

The decision came four days before his scheduled execution.

The appeals court held that Wood’s questions about the drugs and executioners held merit, while there was little evidence for the state’s concerns that publicly identifying the drug manufacturer and administrators would interfere with the execution process.

Senators introduce bipartisan FOIA amendment

Danielle Keeton-Olsen | Freedom of Information | News | June 25, 2014
June 25, 2014

Two senators crossed party lines in support of legislation that would strengthen the current Freedom of Information Act and diminish agencies’ excuses for withholding documents.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) introduced the bill June 24 after the Senate Judiciary Committee held a meeting in March to discuss changes to the FOIA.

“The Freedom of Information Act is one of our nation’s most important laws, established to give Americans greater access to their government and to hold government accountable,” Leahy said in a press release.

Letter to Cherokee leaders about proposed FOIA changes

May 28, 2014

The Cherokee Nation Council was considering several changes to the tribe's freedom of information law, including extending the time tribal agencies would have to respond to a request and consolidating all FOI processing in the attorney general's office. The Reporters Committee urged tribal leaders to minimize the changes to response times and, if a consolidation of processing were necessary, to put that authority in an independent office instead of a political one.

Berger v. New York City Dep't of Health and Mental Hygiene

June 20, 2014

The Jewish Daily Forward sought records from the New York City health department regarding mohels who have given babies herpes during, as the paper reported, "the performance of metzitzah b’peh, a controversial circumcision rite used by some ultra-Orthodox men, in which the mohel sucks blood from the circumcision wound with direct oral to genital contact." Some of the rabbis involved in this practice are refusing to give parents a consent form required by law. The case centers on the privacy rights of the mohels versus the right to know about public health issues. In the case, which is on appeal to the NY Supreme Court Appellate Division, the Reporters Committee argued that the mohel had a reduced privacy interest in his identity given his professional status and that the public interest outweighed any privacy interest he had due to the grave health risks associated with the procedure.