Citing long-standing concerns about the federal government’s handling of public records requests, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University are urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to follow through on the Biden administration’s stated commitment to transparency and take swift and decisive action to ensure compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.
In a March 11 letter to Garland, the Reporters Committee and Knight Institute ask the newly confirmed attorney general to adopt more stringent standards specifying when the Justice Department will defend agencies in FOIA litigation; proactively disclose records; and improve FOIA processes and procedures.
“FOIA has not operated as it should, plagued by high rates of withholding, increased delays in responding to requests, and, consequently, a significant increase in the number of lawsuits against federal agencies,” the letter states. “This has undermined understanding of government by cutting off reporters, civil society, and, ultimately, the public, all of whom rely on FOIA to stay informed about the workings of their government.”
As the letter notes, Biden administration officials have publicly emphasized the importance of truth and transparency. Garland himself specifically mentioned FOIA during his Senate confirmation hearing, saying that the law should be read “generously” to “ensure that the [Justice] Department adheres to the Rule of Law.”
As the supervisor of all FOIA litigation, the attorney general is responsible for ensuring that executive branch agencies comply with the law’s requirements.
“The new administration has a historic opportunity to restore transparency and trust in government,” the letter concludes. “By adopting litigation standards consistent with a presumption of openness, promoting proactive disclosure, and improving agency FOIA processes, you can take meaningful steps to ensure that this opportunity is realized.”