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Names released after secret mediation

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30.

From the Spring 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30.

The names and addresses of most of the 24,000 people who commented on a Fish & Wildlife Service grizzly bear reintroduction plan will be released after the agency’s appeal of a judge’s order was settled through confidential mediation in early April.

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The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must release the names and addresses of more than 24,000 people who commented on a plan to reintroduce grizzly bears to parts of Idaho and Montana as part of a settlement agreement reached in early April between the agency and an environmental group.

The agreement, which came after about six months of secret mediation sessions, allows the agency to withhold the identities of 178 people because they live in small towns and could be subject to harassment if their identities became known.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies had filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act for access to the comments, which the agency solicited as part of its environmental impact study on the grizzly reintroduction plan. The environmental group said it wanted the information in order to monitor what comments the agency relied on in formulating its environmental impact study. The agency resisted the request, however, arguing that the safety of the people who submitted comments could be jeopardized if their identities were made public.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed suit in federal District Court in Washington, D.C., arguing that the information was public under the FOI Act and that the people who submitted comments had no expectation of privacy. In June 1999, Judge Stanley Sporkin ordered the agency to release the information in full, finding that the public interest in knowing what comments had sway with the agency outweighed whatever privacy interests the people who submitted the comments may have had.

The agency appealed, and the case went to mediation. The settlement agreement, reached April 5, does not disturb the lower court precedent.