Skip to content

Human Rights Defense Center v. U.S. Park Police

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

Date Filed: March 6, 2024

Background: In 2018, the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that publishes articles and journals about criminal justice, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Park Police seeking access to records concerning claims filed against the agency.

After the Park Police failed to respond to the request, HRDC filed a FOIA lawsuit against the agency in 2019. Through negotiations, the advocacy group narrowed the scope of its request, prompting the agency to release responsive records.

As part of its disclosures, however, the Park Police claimed that it inadvertently released the names of two people who filed claims against the government. The agency asked HRDC to destroy the mistakenly released records and to refrain from publishing the information.

After failing to reach an agreement on the inadvertently disclosed records and other issues related to the lawsuit, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. As part of its motion, the government asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order HRDC to return the inadvertently disclosed records.

In a ruling issued in August 2023, the district court agreed, ordering HRDC “not to disclose, disseminate, or make use” of the information the government claimed it mistakenly turned over to the advocacy group. HRDC appealed the court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Our Position: The appeals court should vacate the portion of the district court’s order imposing a prior restraint on HRDC.

  • The district court’s order imposes an unconstitutional prior restraint that must be vacated.
  • Constitutional protections against prior restraints apply to information released by an agency under FOIA both before and after a FOIA complaint has been filed.
  • Agency efforts to restrict the dissemination of records released under FOIA are increasingly common and jeopardize reporting in the public interest.

Quote: “If agencies can obtain court orders requiring news organizations to destroy (or refrain from disseminating) information they lawfully obtained from the agency under FOIA simply by claiming the information was ‘inadvertently’ disclosed and could have been withheld pursuant to a FOIA exemption, agencies will have license to stifle the publication of information of vital importance to the public.”

Stay informed by signing up for our mailing list

Keep up with our work by signing up to receive our monthly newsletter. We'll send you updates about the cases we're doing with journalists, news organizations, and documentary filmmakers working to keep you informed.