Freedom of Information

Reporters Committee Joins Open Government Coalition Urging President Obama to Clarify Administration's Position on FOIA Reform

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | News | October 24, 2014
October 24, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has joined a letter sent by 50 transparency and open government organizations to President Obama asking for his position on legislative reform to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Citing the President’s day-one commitment to transparency, the letter points out that there remain “many challenges in fulfilling” that goal. “FOIA remains one of the most effective tools for the public to know what its government is up to,” the letter states, but “changing agency practices under that statute to meet your transparency goals has been especially challenging.”

Accordingly, the letter identifies six core components of FOIA reform that must be legislatively mandated to ensure realization of the President’s stated open government goals:

Trial court allows police to use "Glomar" response to deny records requests

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | October 16, 2014
October 16, 2014

In what appears to be an unprecedented decision, a New York trial court has allowed the New York Police Department (“NYPD”) to issue a “Glomar” response to a state open records request, meaning the government refuses to confirm or deny whether responsive records exist.

The decision appears to be the first time that a court anwhere in the U.S. has upheld the use of such a tactic by a state agency. The Glomar response has historically been used only with regard to requests made to federal agencies that involve sensitive matters of national security.

Requesters complain of consultant's high FOIA search fees for Ferguson records

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | October 9, 2014
October 9, 2014

Multiple news media organizations have filed formal complaints with the Missouri Attorney General over the high fees charged by the city of Ferguson in response to public records requests. The complaints come after reports of journalists being asked to pay up to $2,000 in advance to search through and copy emails and text messages. Thus far, complaints have been filed by the Associated Press, CNN, St. Louis Public Radio, and the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Fredericks v. The Superior Court of San Diego County/City of San Diego et al.

September 11, 2014

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief on behalf of a coalition of media and transparency organizations in the California Court of Appeals to support public access to government records. The case involves access to law enforcement records under California’s Public Records Act (PRA). The original request in the case sought records from the San Diego Police Department regarding six months’ worth of complaints and/or requests for assistance with respect to burglary and identity theft. While the police department released 60 days’ worth of records, it refused to release them for the full six months requested, stating that their obligation to respond under the PRA was “limited to current information of contemporaneous police activity.” That decision was upheld by the Superior Court of California, resulting in an appeal.

Comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

September 22, 2014

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ("CFPB") asked for comments regarding a proposed policy whereby it would post consumer complaint narratives in its online Consumer Complaint Database on an opt-in basis. Previously, only aggregate data from complaints submitted to the CFPB was available through the database. The CFPB's proposed policy statement changed this by allowing consumers to have any narrative included in their complaint publicly published on an opt-in basis. The Reporters Committee, joined by a coalition of news media organizations, submitted comments arguing that all consumer complaint narratives should be published. The disclosure of such comments "would assist journalists who seek to supplement the numbers already made available through the Database with the powerful firsthand experiences of individual consumers," and therefore the public interest weighs heavily in favor of their disclosure, the letter argued.

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.