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'News media' FOI fee status awarded public interest group

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

‘News media’ FOI fee status awarded public interest group

  • EPIC, a public interest group that produces an electronic newsletter and other publications, is a “representative of the news media” entitled to the federal Freedom of Information Act’s fee benefits available to journalists, a federal district court in Washington, D.C. ruled Jan. 16.

Jan. 22, 2003 — The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, is entitled to Freedom of Information Act fee benefits available to journalists because it publishes and distributes “news,” a federal district court judge ruled in mid-January, ordering the Department of Defense to provide information requested by the group expeditiously.

EPIC sought records on the Defense Department’s Information Awareness Office and John Poindexter, its director.

The court said EPIC performs activities that are “hallmarks of publishing, news and journalism.” It gleans information from a wide variety of sources, researches issues on privacy and civil liberties, reports on this information, analyzes relevant data, evaluates newsworthiness, puts facts and issues into context, and publishes and distributes news through sale of its books to the public.

EPIC also is entitled to news media status because it publishes a bi-weekly electronic newsletter, the court said. It noted both that newsletters are given news media status and that the Department of Defense’s own FOI regulations recognize that alternative media that disseminate newspapers through telecommunications services would be news media entitled to the fee benefit.

However, in a footnote, the court said it was not convinced that operation of a Web site, by itself, would qualify a FOI Act requester for news media status.

The FOI Reform Act of 1986 assigned FOI Act requesters to fee payment categories. Representatives of the news media receive a waiver of copying costs on the first 100 pages provided and a full waiver of search fees. News media requesters, like any other requesters, also can ask agencies to grant public interest fee waivers for any additional pages, but their entitlement to 100 free pages and waiver of search costs is automatic because of their status.

In 1987 the Office of Management and Budget issued sample fee regulations to help agencies write new regulations to implement the law’s fee changes. OMB defined “representative of the news media” as actively gathering information about current events or of current interest to the public as an entity “organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public.”

The Department of Defense denied EPIC’s February 2002, request for news media fee status saying much of the information it sought would not be of current interest to the public and that it was not “organized” to publish news. EPIC’s Web site defines it as “a public interest research center,” the agency said.

The district court pointed out that the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. had settled the definition of “news media” in 1989 in a very similar case brought by the National Security Archive, another public interest group, against the Defense Department. That appeals panel found news media status for a group that “gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw material into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience.”

(EPIC v. Department of Defense; Attorney: David Sobel, Washington, D.C.) RD

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