Comments from Native American Tribes to the U.S. Department of the Interior advocating the tribes’ rights to water should be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, according to a brief filed today in the U.S. Supreme Court by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The Reporters Committee wrote that the public is entitled to see information on the struggle for water rights in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon. It was joined on the brief by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The public and the press ought to be able to see how the Interior Department decides to allocate water from the Klamath River Basin. Its decision will affect not only Native Americans, but environmental, farming, commercial and other groups,” said Lucy Dalglish, Reporters Committee Executive Director. “The amici curiae brief points out that the public has a strong interest in knowing who is influencing the government in its decisions and how the government accepts or rejects that influence.” The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the Interior Department’s arguments in January that its special trust relationship with Native Americans requires it to keep secret tribal pleas for Klamath River water favorable to their fishing interests. The Interior Department told the Court in its brief that these communications are “inter-agency or intra-agency” records exempt from the FOI Act.
The government appealed to the high court from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco that it must provide the tribal comments in response to a FOI Act request from a group of downstream water users, the Klamath Water Users Protective Association, a group which also has commented on how it believes the government should allocate water. Its comments have been made public under the FOI Act. The news media brief said that exemptions to the FOI Act are to be read narrowly. A narrow reading of an exemption that allows the government to withhold internal communications would not protect tribal comments when the tribes seek to further their own interests, it said.
The brief is available at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/klamath.html