A U.S. District Court ruled that the FBI must release unredacted documents about Ronald Reagan to a journalist who has legally sought the information for the last 27 years in an attempt to prove that the former president was not only a bureau informant, but that the FBI assisted in his political career in return.
Judge Edward Chen ruled that the FBI incorrectly redacted information from a three-page document under two exemptions to the federal Freedom of Information Act that protect individuals' privacy. The documents relate to traffic violations and arrests of a third party who is associated with Reagan, and were released by the FBI to former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld with the person's name redacted.
Rosenfeld filed his first FOIA request for documents relating to the FBI’s activities at the University of California as a journalism student in 1981. He filed his first lawsuit for the documents in 1985.
The judge ruled Exemption 7(c) — which applies to records, compiled for law enforcement purposes, whose release would result in an invasion of personal privacy — does not apply to the document because the files were not maintained for a law enforcement purpose.
The FBI said the 1975 document was related to an investigation of Reagan’s ties to the Communist party.
However, the court noted that in 1957, the U.S. Supreme Court held that only active Communist party members who intended to advocate for the overthrow of the United States government may be prosecuted, and an investigation of a person's mere associations with the Communist party occurring after this case did not serve a law enforcement purpose. Chen upheld this distinction, ruling that the bureau could not withhold the records based on Exemption 7(c).
Chen also said the FBI's argument that the document was related to Reagan's connections to the Communist party was “wholly unbelievable.”
“Defendants’ claim that there was a legitimate law enforcement purpose in investigating Ronald Reagan for ties to Communists is belied by the fact that Ronald Reagan was an informant for the FBI starting in the late 1940s, identifying suspected communists in the Screen Actors Guild,” the opinion said. “Given Ronald Reagan’s status as an informant for the FBI, the FBI would have no reason to investigate Ronald Reagan for his involvement in the Communist party . . .”
The document also fails to fall under Exemption 6, which protects the privacy interests of private citizens in the release of personnel-type records unless they are outweighed by the public interest in disclosure, the court ruled.
Because the third party, whose name was redacted, is a public figure who has “written numerous memoirs, was the host of a live radio show for over two decades, and is described on his own website as ‘a popular national speaker on issues related to conservative politics, adoption, and the life lessons,’” he has a lower privacy interest, according to the opinion. The court said the fact that the document contained 40-year-old traffic violations further diminished the party's privacy interest, because the release would not carry a high stigma, unlike the disclosure of criminal prosecutions. The subject is only referred to in legal documents as someone closely associated with Reagan, but the language that the court quoted is identical to language from the short biography used by Reagan's eldest son, Michael.
The public, however, has a high interest in the document's release, because it may reveal information about the FBI's investigation practices, the opinion said.
“While Defendant argues that the redacted information merely identifies the individual that was under investigation, rather than how they were investigated, Plaintiff persuasively argues that the investigation of the subject’s old traffic violations had no conceivable purpose other than to aid Ronald Reagan’s political career by providing advance notice of any issues of potential embarrassment that might affect any future political campaign,” the opinion said. “The disclosure of this document thus enhances the public’s understanding of whether then [sic] FBI used public resources to benefit a private citizen for non-law enforcement purposes.”
In 2002, Rosenfeld wrote a series of investigative pieces called “The Campus Files: Reagan, Hoover and the UC Red Scare” using some of the documents he received from previous suits and settlements. He reported the FBI spent over $1 million trying to withhold the records.
Rosenfeld told The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a 2003 article he was still waiting for thousands of documents the court ordered the FBI to release in the 1990s.
He is currently involved in other pending litigation relating to his FOIA requests.
“When an issue arises about the nation's most powerful police agencies and one of its largest universities, the public has a right to know,” Rosenfeld told the Reporters Committee in 2003.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· NM&L: Federal Delays
· Federal Open Government Guide: 6. Personal privacy
· Federal Open Government Guide: 7. Law enforcement records