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Judicial Watch entitled to news media FOI fee benefit

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Dec 20, 2000    

Judicial Watch entitled to news media FOI fee benefit

  • Based on a judge’s definition of new media, the watchdog group qualifies and does not have to pay search fees

Even though the website of Judicial Watch “does not resemble a ‘news medium’ in any traditional sense,” the Department of Justice must waive Freedom of Information Act search fees for the maverick watchdog group because it is a “representative of the news media,” Judge James Robertson of the federal district court in the District of Columbia ruled in mid-November.

However, the judge ruled that the organization is not entitled to additional public interest fee waivers available to requesters who “contribute significantly to public understanding” of the government.

In finding that Judicial Watch is a representative of the news media, the judge noted that Judicial Watch “seeks to make news and to generate publicity for itself.” It posts “self-serving accounts” of its own activities and “transparent solicitations” for either financial support or clients, he wrote. But he said the organization regularly publishes or disseminates information to the public and so fits the definition of news media representative.

The “representative of the news media” definition developed in the late 1980s with passage of the FOI Reform Act of 1986. Robertson cited comments by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) at its enactment that anyone who regularly publishes or disseminates information to the public should be entitled to have search fees waived.

Since an appeals court decision in 1989, the news media definition has been broadly inclusive, covering any person or entity that gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work and distributes that work to an audience.

Robertson said that when the 1986 Act was passed, providing lower cost FOI Act service to certain categories of requesters including news media, its authors did not “anticipate the evolution of the Internet or the ‘morphing’ of the news media into its present indistinct form.” He noted that anyone with a website arguably is entitled to demand free search services, but he said that Congress, not his court, would appropriately make any changes.

(Judicial Watch v. Department of Justice; Media Counsel: Larry Klayman, Washington, D.C.) RD

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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