WASHINGTON, D.C.–Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in late July reintroduced the Electronic Freedom of Information Improvement Act. A similar bill passed the Senate last session but died in the House in the waning days of the 103d Congress.
The bill would ensure that electronically stored information is available under the Freedom of Information Act and is releasable in electronic format if the requester chooses to receive it that way. If an agency cannot make the information available online, then the bill would require that it be made available in some other electronic form, such as a CD-ROM or on disc.
The bill also calls upon agencies to take affirmative steps to put more government information on-line. It directs agencies to make publicly available for inspection and copying disclosed records that are likely to be the subject of future requests, such as records on the assassination of a public official. Agencies must also make indexes of their databases available under this bill.
In introducing the bill Senator Leahy called the long delays in processing FOI Act requests intolerable, saying the American taxpayer has paid for the collection and maintenance of information and should get prompt access to it upon request as the law requires.
The bill doubles the 10-day statutory time limit for responding to requests to 20 days, giving agencies what Leahy calls a “more realistic” time period for response. It also sets up multi-track processing for simple and complex requests.
It calls for agencies to give requesters expedited review where there is a compelling need for information, including the compelling need of the public to assess “actual or alleged” governmental actions that are the subject of widespread, contemporaneous media coverage. Expedited review would also be available where there is a threat to life or safety, or where delay would cause substantial loss of due process.
The measure would reward agencies which comply with the time limits by allowing them to keep half of the fees they collect to enhance their FOI programs. Under current law most collected fees go to the treasury. (S. 1090)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.