Tag Archives: FOIA

Times media law article enlightens

Here’s the good news: Some news organizations are not letting up on legal cases to get records and information.

Here’s the bad news: Some are.

Tim Arango of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece about how Hearst and the Associated Press are continuing to fight for legal records, even if it costs them.

Unfortunately, he also writes that smaller news organizations — regional and local — have had to cut legal costs along with other costs. And the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told him that she’s hearing about hard times for media lawyers.

I hope the Times continues to follow up on this issue. At a time when cost-cutting is the norm in the news industry, we must monitor how this cost-cutting is impacting journalism’s watchdog role.

Kudos to the Times for doing just that.

Annarbor.com brings FOIA to readers

I stumbled upon a great feature in Annarbor.com called FOIA Friday. Each week, Annarbor.com uses information gathered through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to “shed light on the activities of government.”

FOIA Friday is written like a column, with a conversational tone and lots of information.

For a good example of what FOIA Friday does, see this entry. Not only does it inform readers about the National Security Archive, but it also lists the upcoming local information that might come from pending FOIA requests.

My hat’s off to you, Advance Publications, for FOIA Friday.

Media Law Case of the Week

For three years, student journalists at Michigan State University have been fighting a legal battle to get access to police records of a campus incident that allegedly included a student covering a victim in gasoline and threatening to set the victim on fire in a dorm room.

Now an Ingham County Circuit Court judge has said the university must turn over some of the information in those police records to the student newspaper.

The Student Press Law Center has the story of how this legal battle unfolded, why it is important to student journalists who weren’t even on the newspaper staff at the time, and why it might not be over here.

Three years to get basic police records.

Keep up the good fight, student journalists.

Media Law Case of the Week

Cows, you have your privacy.

The Cattle Network (yes, there is a Cattle Network) is reporting that a federal court has ruled that data collected for the National Animal Identification System is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The National Animal Identification System is used by the U.S. government to trace diseased animals/animal disease outbreaks.

I’m not sure what “sensitive information” would not be able to be released under FOIA, but The Cattle Network mentions “sensitive producer information about premises, businesses and animals .” (Seems to me if there is a disease outbreak, information needs to come out…)

I’m also not sure what FOIA exemption this falls under. Trade secrets doesn’t seem right. Maybe bovine secrets?

The danger of the state of journalism

I’m normally an optimist, but I’m finding it difficult to be upbeat today. Yesterday I learned that many former colleagues of mine are among those

Danger Sign

Danger Sign

with 10-day furloughs and pension freezes as Advance Publications attempts to help the bottom line, and also that Gannett journalists I know are facing their second furlough for the same reasons.

Today I read that Janice Okun is retiring from the Buffalo News on March 31, the same day the Buffalo News had previously reported those accepting buyouts would have to be off the payroll. Thirty-six members of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild (not all editorial) took that offer. (Okun will continue writing reviews as a freelancer, but will no longer be a staffer.)

I couldn’t help thinking about all this when, in my media law class, we were talking about the importance of  Freedom of Information Act and state Freedom of Information Laws. Students brought in examples of stories where government records were used.

Among them was this gem:

The city of Auburn would not release the names of two employees who took equipment until two newspapers — The Post-Standard and The Auburn Citizen–filed a notice that they intended to sue the city for the names.

My question is, with journalists working fewer hours (if at all), who is going to do these stories? Who is going to find out about this stuff?

I know some new media types say citizen journalists or bloggers will do it. Really? In a small city like Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse someone who works a paying job is going to have time to file foia/foil requests and hold public officials accountable?

And please don’t tell me TV and radio journalists will do it. Government record stories don’t have exciting visuals, and TV and radio journalism staffs are cut to the bone, too.

This newspaper crisis has far deeper implications than what happens to journalists. It’s about what happens to our society.

As Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” But let’s face it:  We are losing a major conduit to that power.

Knight grades state web sites

Have you ever wondered how your state fares when it comes to open information about the government?

The Knight Citizen News Network has a state-by-state guide in which it grades state web sites on online, open government information.  (My state, New York, gets a thumbs up. Check out your state by clicking on it here.) The evaluation also includes links to that state’s government information.

The feature is part of the Knight Citizen News Network’s Citizen Journalist’s Guide to Open Government, which has lots of great information on how people can access government records.

Records request takes 3+ years?!

Mark Schleifstein of The Times-Picayune writes of his three-plus year stuggle to get Federal Emergency Management Agency records related to Katrina — records that should be available to the public.

He’s still waiting.

Schleifstein is seeking records about the types and amounts of help people in the affected areas needed after Katrina. His tale of bureaucracy woe would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

It is clear that federal government officials have been hoping he will go away.  When he gets a response, he is asked if he still wants the records. Of course he does!

This isn’t surprising, given former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s memo that in essence encourages non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

But let’s hope this changes. After all, President Obama has already made compliance with FOIA a priority and issued a memo Jan. 21 that states

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.

See the full Obama memo here.