FOI in the USA: recent FOI victories

This month, freedom of information fighters in America have:
  • Loosened rules on press access to California prisons.
  • Used four states’ open-records laws to obtain court-settlement documents (Maine), a sheriff’s news releases (Arizona), investigatory reports concerning an allegation of police brutality (New York) and the employment contracts of university officials (Illinois).
  • Invoked a federal law to compel the Bush administration to issue global-warming reports.
  • Persuaded a Connecticut state commission to void a policy that made it difficult for prison inmates to use the state’s freedom of information act.

But there are many examples of secrecy creeping into every level of government denying even the most basic requests for information:

  • The New York State Police refused to provide its reports of an incident involving a man who claimed he was beaten by a trooper outside a bar in Albany. Initially, the department said it had no records. Then it said it couldn’t find the records because the request was too vague. Then it produced some records but deleted from them the names of witnesses, claiming the release of the names would invade the witnesses’ privacy. The person seeking the records finally sued, and the trial judge ordered the records be provided in full, criticizing the state police for playing a game of “cat and mouse” over the reports and accusing the department of “contrived procedural maneuvering designed to avoid (court) review of its decision.” The department’s legal argument was baseless, the judge said, because no evidence existed that the witnesses expected their names to be kept confidential.
  • Prison-access rules were eased in California, but they prohibited reporters from using pens, pencils and notebooks while interviewing inmates.
  • The Connecticut policy that effectively prevented many inmates from using the state’s open-records law treated the $27,000 a year the state spends incarcerating each inmate as income to the inmate, which prevented inmates from qualifying for free or discounted copies of records.
  • The argument offered to justify sealing court-settlement documents about the cleanup of a hazardous-waste site in Maine were that communications between attorneys of adverse parties should be treated as confidentially as those between attorneys and clients.
  • In Illinois, the open-records act states clearly: “The disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of privacy.” Yet when a small newspaper requested the employment contracts of public university officials, the university denied the request — claiming the release would be an invasion of privacy.
  • In San Francisco, where litigation is pending regarding the federal government’s refusal to update the nation’s climate-change research plan and impact assessment, the Bush administration claimed the law allowed it discretion over how and when to produce the reports. The federal judge soundly rejected that argument, stating the statute clearly does not allow any such discretion.

Recent FOI victories: Judges reject baseless secrecy (First Amendment Center, 28 August 2007)