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Interior Department’s FOIA proposal faces scrutiny from the Reporters Committee

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  1. Freedom of Information

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 39 news media organizations have submitted comments opposing changes to the Department of the Interior’s regulations implementing the Freedom of Information Act. If enacted, the proposed rule would limit the public’s access to the Department’s records, making it harder for reporters and members of the news media to gain insight into its activities and inform the public.

The coalition, led by the Reporters Committee, argues that many aspects of the proposed rule are “flatly inconsistent or incompatible” with FOIA and could impede on the newsgathering duties of journalists.

“[The regulations] would harm journalists’ ability to gather and report information to the public about the actions of the Department and its personnel,” the coalition said in comments submitted on January 28.

The Department published its proposed changes on a Friday in late December 2018, citing “an unprecedented surge in FOIA requests and litigation” as a basis. The proposed rules would, among other things, eliminate the ability to submit requests via email, and claim to allow the Department to “limit” the number of records it would process each month and deny requests that require it to “locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”

In their comments, the Reporters Committee and the news media coalition note the heightened interest in the Department over the last few years, especially following the lift on certain environmental restrictions under former secretary Ryan Zinke. That public attention is not, however, a “license for the Department to impose unlawful restrictions and unnecessary, unwarranted burdens on FOIA requesters.”

The comments from the news media coalition recommend eliminating or modifying numerous portions of the Department’s proposed rule that conflict with FOIA and established case law.

“Interior has no authority to limit or modify the rights guaranteed to the public under FOIA,” said Staff Attorney Adam Marshall. “The government should be making it easier, not harder, to access public records.”

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