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Court reverses ruling blocking release of farm information

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  1. Freedom of Information
March 4, 2008  ·   The public has a "particular and significant interest" in materials relating to a Department of…

March 4, 2008  ·   The public has a “particular and significant interest” in materials relating to a Department of Agriculture program and these documents should be made available, according to a divided panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

Multi Ag Media LLC submitted a FOIA request to the USDA in July 2005, asking the Farm Service Agency to release 13 databases pertaining to its subsidy and benefit program. The USDA, in turn, released some of the data, but withheld other files by invoking FOIA Exemption 6, which protects the “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The district court sided with Multi Ag on the release of two of the files, but allowed USDA to withhold two additional documents, finding that FOIA Exemption 6 protected the information because disclosure “would reveal financial information associated with an individual . . . without shedding any light on the government’s activities.”

On appeal, Multi Ag contended that the disclosure of the files would not reveal personal information about individual farmers, but would simply open up the USDA’s subsidy and benefit programs to the public.

On Feb. 15, a 2-1 panel partially reversed the district court’s holding.

The appeals court noted that disclosure of crop information may compromise an individual’s privacy interest since not all farms are owned by large corporations. However, in this instance, the court found that this was not a valid concern.

“We conclude that the public interest in disclosure of the Compliance file and GIS database outweighs the personal privacy interest,” Judge Thomas Griffith wrote. “Accordingly, release of these files would not ‘constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,’ and USDA’s reliance on Exemption 6 in withholding information from the files was improper.”

Charles Tobin, a media attorney at Holland and Knight, noted the case’s importance to the FOIA community.

“Without access to the Compliance file and the Geographic Information System database, the public could not know if the agency is doing its job regarding the farmers’ subsidy and benefit program,” he said.

Tobin worked on a similar case regarding the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s refusal to release the addresses of the individual Florida households that received FEMA aid following the 2004 hurricane disasters. The district court originally denied the request based on privacy grounds but was reversed on appeal.

(Multi Ag Media LLC v. Department of Agriculture)Alanna Malone

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