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FOI Committee
This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Freedom of Information Committee Chair

Linda Petersen
Managing Editor
The Valley Journals
801-254-5974 X 17
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Bio (click to expand) picture Linda Petersen is the managing editor of The Valley Journals, a group of 15 free, total market coverage, monthly community papers in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah.

She is president of the Utah Foundation for Open Government, a citizen coalition that works to educate and advocate for open government.

A past president of the Utah Headliners pro chapter, she is currently the chapter’s FOI officer and treasurer.

For her open government advocacy, she has received the Utah Press Association John E. Jones Award, the Utah Headliners Clifford P. Cheney Service to Journalism Award and the Howard S. Dubin Outstanding Pro Chapter Member Award.

Home > Freedom of Information > Awards > Black Hole Award > 2011 Winner and Runners-up

2011 SPJ Black Hole Award
Utah the darkest pit in the United States



The Society of Professional Journalists launched the Black Hole Award to highlight the most heinous violations of the public's right to know. By exposing examples of unnecessary and harmful secrecy, we hope to educate the public to their rights and hold government accountable. The Freedom of Information Committee accepted nominations for 2010 violations, coordinated by committee member Mike Farrell of the University of Kentucky, and selected the winner along with five runners-up. This award will be handed out annually during national Sunshine Week.


SPJ News: SPJ gives Utah national “Black Hole Award” for egregious anti-transparency law

The Society of Professional Journalists is giving its Black Hole Award for 2011 to the Utah Legislature and Governor Gary Herbert for plunging their state into an abyss of secrecy never before seen in modern times. Read the complete press release


David Cuillier: “And the Black Hole Award goes to...”

I'm going to spend spring break in Utah. Not a lot of partying, and not much sunshine. In fact, it's so dark in Utah right now that on Wednesday I will be in Salt Lake City to present the governor and Legislature the Society of Professional Journalists' national "Black Hole Award" for exceptional efforts to undermine freedom of information. Read the complete column

The SPJ Black Hole Award for 2011 goes to the Utah Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert for plunging their state into an abyss of secrecy through the most regressive piece of freedom of information legislation in recent history.

On Tuesday, March 8, Herbert signed HB477 into law, which would have taken effect July 1. The legislation would have made major changes to the state Government Records Access and Management Act, including:

— Expansive and arbitrary copy fees for search time, redaction, administrative overhead and legal review that will price citizens out of their government,

— A requirement that people must prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence that a public record should be public; every other state requires the government to prove it should be secret,

— Exemptions keeping a wide swath of electronic records secret, including text messages and other correspondence of officials, allowing government to communicate in secret.

Herbert said in a press release: "This bill provides a way to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and the personal privacy of both constituents and policymakers, while protecting taxpayer dollars. Our goal is open and transparent government.”

Freedom of information experts from around the country said the results of the legislation will instead make the state the most secretive in the nation, positioning Utah as more closed than most nations, including Mexico and Albania, and lead to increased corruption and government malfeasance at the expense of taxpayers.

"This is by far the most anti-Democratic secrecy legislation we have ever seen in the United States," SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier said. "This isn't about protecting privacy of citizens or saving tax dollars. This is about hiding shady dealings to protect the privacy of officials so they can fool the public without recourse."

SPJ strongly urged the Legislature to not only rescind this legislation, but create constitutional guarantees similar to other states that mandate transparency and accountability.

Utah lawmakers repealed the bill on March 25 after facing two weeks of widespread outrage from SPJ, media outlets and citizens.

The Utah State Senate included amendments requesting Herbert call for a special summer session to revise GRAMA, but the House didn’t accept those additions and they were dropped, according to an the Salt Lake Tribune. Herbert, however, sent the Senate a message that he plans to follow the requests for GRAMA review that first appeared in the Senate’s proposed amendments and were later mentioned in the Senate journal after the amendments were dropped.

So although the bill’s repeal was a triumph for transparency, dark days may still loom in Utah’s future if the legislature reviews GRAMA and decides to take another stab at it.


Runners-up

Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services: Hiding Child Deaths

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services has embarked on a campaign of obfuscation aimed at preventing the public from learning the details about the death of a toddler under the cabinet’s supervision. The child and his mother, then 14, had been under the supervision of cabinet social workers who had placed both in foster care. They were moved because the home where they had been staying had no food, water or electricity. The infant died in May 2009 after drinking drain cleaner at what police have described as a methamphetamine lab. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services has a blanket policy of refusing to disclose all information in child abuse and neglect cases. The cabinet's bias in favor of confidentiality seems to be driven more by the culture of the agency, "which seeks to avoid public scrutiny," than by the law, a judge said.

Five people, including the teen mother, were charged in the death. The cabinet failed to conduct an internal review of the death, as required by law. The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader asked a state judge to require the cabinet to produce records related to the infant’s death. Most of what the cabinet produced in December 2010 was redacted, and the judge ordered the cabinet to return with the entire unredacted record so that he could decide what would be released. Then in January 2011, the cabinet issued “emergency regulations” to restrict access to records of child abuse and neglect cases. The newspapers filed suit again, asking a judge to strike down the new regulations and order the cabinet to release records sought by the newspapers immediately. The cabinet has petitioned to move the lawsuit to federal court, arguing that federal law prohibits the cabinet from releasing information about children who die in its care.

What is more egregious than a state government refusing to provide answers to the people of the state about the death of a child in its custody?


University of Maryland: Pricing People out of their Government

The University of Maryland is a black hole when it comes to providing students an accurate picture of sexual assault on campus - hiding the dangers and giving students a false sense of security. The way they do it? Charge exorbitant copy fees so student journalists can't afford to look at records. Danielle Lama, a University of Maryland student, has been working on an investigative story looking into the administrative process for sexual assault violations on the University of Maryland, College Park campus. One in five women reports being raped during her college career, according to the university’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Program (SARPP). Ms. Lama believes that the student body, as well as the general public, deserves to know which students have violated the Student Code of Conduct regarding sexual assault.

This story was initiated by a University of Maryland radio report called, “Out of the Shadows” and further pursued by a student journalist, Alexandra Moe, following the report. In March of 2010, Ms. Moe requested the last 10 years of records regarding sexual offense violations from the Office of Student Conduct following a Maryland Attorney General decision giving public access to certain parts of administrative records regarding sexual assault. In response to Ms. Moe’s request, the Office of Student Conduct Director, Dr. John Zacker, wrote back that the records would be released with a reasonable fee of $342.88 to “locate, retrieve, review, prepare, redact confidential information and copy the responsive documents,” along with a 25 cent per page copy fee. The university refused to waive the fee, even though the information would serve the public interest.

According to Andy Schotz, president of the D.C. chapter, Maryland has a weak open records law. There is no set per-page fee. Governments can charge a "reasonable" fee to recover costs. He wrote a story last year that showed how police departments are the worst offenders. One in his area charges $5 for the first page and $1 for each additional page. (Correction: This description originally noted "$2 each additional page.") Another department charges $5 for the first four pages and $1 for each additional page. (Correction: This description originally noted "$2 a page.") No one blinks, mostly because most requests are from insurance companies seeking accident reports. They pass the fee along. Among the more reasonable government agencies, Andy has seen fees range from 15 cents a page to 50 cents a page. For these unreasonable copy fees that price people out of their government, we see the public's interest in Maryland going down a deep, dark hole.


Fairfax County Police Department: Hiding the Killers of Unarmed Citizens

In November 2009, a Fairfax County police officer shot and killed an unarmed motorist on Richmond Highway. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about the incident, Fairfax officials declined to release video footage of the shooting from police cruisers or copies of reports written in the wake of the shooting. To this day, the police have refused to officially release the officer's name. In January 2010, the commonwealth’s attorney announced that he would not file criminal charges against the officer who shot and killed the unarmed driver. In a press release, authorities suggested the driver, a carpenter and former Army Green Beret with bipolar disease, had ignored police lights and sirens before the officer fatally shot him. But the police department denied a request for public inspection of the actual reports.

The Arlington County Police Department refuses to release the incident report for the drunken driving arrest of then-Alexandria Police Chief David Baker. While Baker has served his five days in jail and the case is closed, police officials in Arlington refuse to release the report detailing the arrest.

Police have the power to kill, and in Virginia they can kill in secrecy. And don’t bother asking for documents detailing their activities because police departments in Northern Virginia routinely deny requests for incident reports. Police officials in Arlington won’t even answer questions about their lack of transparency. It’s all legal under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which includes broad exemptions for police agencies. Local jurisdictions use their exemption in all cases, regardless of what the case is about or whether the case is open or closed. "I don’t think we have to justify it," said Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook in an interview about access to public documents. "A lot of things can be said about transparency, that doesn’t make it effective." That's true - transparency does not make hiding problems effective. But openness does protect citizens from their own government, which is what the Founding Fathers intended. This country should not tolerate secret police - a practice made effective by Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein and other dictators. We expect transparent government and police, lest we all end up shot and buried in a black hole.


Central Intelligence Agency and A.G. Eric Holder: Flagrant Destruction of Embarrassing Records

Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, directed the destruction of 92 video recordings showing the interrogation of high-level detainees at CIA black sites despite the requirements of the Federal Records Act and a court order to preserve the material. To date the Department of Justice has declined to hold anyone accountable for this blatant violation of the letter and the spirit of our public access and preservation laws.

The New York Times first reported in December 2007 that the videos showing the interrogation of high-level detainees at Central Intelligence Agency black sites had been destroyed. Ninety-two video recordings were removed from a safe in Thailand and destroyed over a three-and-a-half hour period on the morning of November 9, 2005, at the direction of Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., the head of the CIA’s clandestine service. In March 2009, the CIA acknowledged it destroyed the tapes. According to an internal CIA email obtained by the ACLU in 2010, Mr. Rodriguez destroyed the tapes because “out of context, they would make us look terrible; it would be ‘devastating’ to us.”

Despite the Department of Justice’s mission to enforce the law of the land, and the Attorney General Holder’s explicit direction to all federal agencies that records cannot be withheld from the public because they may contain embarrassing material, DOJ has yet to hold anyone accountable for the destruction of public records. On November 9, 2010, the five-year statute of limitations expired for criminally prosecuting the CIA officials who destroyed videos depicting torture during interrogations. The Department of Justice has a duty to enforce our public preservation and access laws. In addition to being responsible for pressing charges over the violation of the Federal Records Act, the department is charged with implementing the Freedom of Information Act, our oldest public access law. Both the President Obama’s January 21 memorandum on the FOIA and Attorney General Holder’s guidelines direct heads of executive departments and agencies to “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.”


Broward County, Fla., School Board: Inaccurate Records

This school board oversees the sixth-largest school district in the nation. A state grand jury investigated the school system and was so outraged by what it found that it concluded it would recommend, if it could, that the school board be dissolved. Among its lengthy list of legal and ethical problem, the grand jury’s report said, is an incompetent management of its records. The grand jury’s 51-page scathing report includes a section on “Inadequate Record Keeping: Our review of the District's building practices was hampered by the challenge of securing complete and accurate records." Without good records, citizens can't tell what its government is up to. For that, we see the Broward County School Board as a black hole of secrecy.

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