What's the Story? The Art of Writing & Communication is one of dozens of Breakout Sessions on offer at Excellence in Journalism 2014, which takes place Sept. 4-6 in Nashville. See the complete list and register today to get the early bird rate.

Society of Professional Journalists
Improving and protecting journalism since 1909


— ADVERTISEMENT —
Advertise with SPJ
6

News and More
Click to Expand Instantly

SPJ News
Events and Deadlines
SPJ Blogs
Quill Online
SPJ on Tumblr
Journalist's Toolbox

Stay in Touch
Twitter Tumblr Facebook Google Plus
RSS Pinterest Pinterest Storify


Your Right to Know
Find FOI in your state

Get in touch with the Sunshine chair or chairs in your state and find FOI Centers, quotable sources, resources and more by using the menu below.

Freedom of Information
About/History
News/Articles
Covering Prisons
Project Sunshine: Find FOI Help
Accessing Government Records
Shield Law Campaign
FOI Audit Tookit | PDF
Anti-SLAPP: Protect Free Speech
Official Secrets Act bill
FOI Groups
Annual FOI Reports
FOI Committee Roster
GovernmentAttic.org

FOI FYI: SPJ’s FOI Committee Blog
– Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14
– Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14
– FOIA should be proactive, not reactive

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
E-mail
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.


FOI Committee Members

Sonny Albarado
Projects Editor
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
121 E. Capitol Ave.
Little Rock, AR 72201
Work: 501-244-4321
Fax: 501-372-4765
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture As projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Sonny Albarado supervises reporters on investigative and explanatory journalism assignments. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La.

His 37-year journalism career includes lengthy sojourns in Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn. He has been a reporter, an assistant city editor, a business editor (twice), a projects editor (twice) and a news editor. He also briefly edited a trade magazine dedicated to the coin-operated amusement industry.

He has been involved in the defense of the First Amendment and the free flow of information since his days as editor of his college’s student newspaper. A member of SPJ since 1979, he is currently a member of the national board of directors from Region 12 (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee).

All awards he’s received have been the result of good editors when he was a reporter and excellent reporters since he’s been an editor.


Carolyn S. Carlson
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication
Kennesaw State University
MD2207
Kennesaw, GA 30114-5591
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Carolyn S. Carlson is co-chairman of the SPJ FOI Committee’s Subcommittee On Campus Crime. For the past decade, she has been a leader in the effort to improve public access to records involving student discipline and crime on the nation’s college campuses. She founded the multi-organizational Campus Courts Task Force, which received an SPJ Freedom of Information Award in 1998 for its success in changing federal law to increase public access to college disciplinary records involving serious crime. Carlson has a doctorate from Georgia State University. She is an assistant professor of journalism and citizen media at Kennesaw State University. She is a former political press secretary and a longtime reporter and editor for The Associated Press. She was national president of SPJ in 1989-1990, chaired the SPJ Ethics Committee in 1993-94, received SPJ’s Wells Key in 1994, and was named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers in 2002, 2005 and 2006.

David Chartrand
Bio (click to expand) picture The humor and commentary of David Chartrand have appeared in publications throughout North America. His essays on families, children, education, and health issues are distributed to daily newspapers by Universal Press Syndicate as well as by his own distribution company.

David has confronted numerous First Amendment, Freedom of Information, and public-access issues during coverage of local and state government, as well as public schools.

His Web site is www.davidchartrand.com.

David is the author of, “A View from the Heartland” (2003, Globe-Pequot Press), a collection of stories and essays about midwestern families and the resiliency of the human spirit. He currently is completing work on a work of narrative nonfiction that examines attitudes toward mental illness in successful, middle-class communities.

In 2002, David received a First Place Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL book series, says that David Chartrand’s writing “embraces the mundane, everyday things that make us laugh, weep or pound the table in frustration.” David’s 1994 essay, "A Father's Letter to Santa" was included in CHICKEN SOUP: A CHRISTMAS TREASURY, where the publishers cited it as among the most memorable Christmas essays of all time.

David is a 1975 Kansas State University journalism graduate and a member of the journalism school’s advisory board.


Jodi Cleesattle
Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice
San Diego, CA
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Jodi Cleesattle is a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice, where she works in the Civil Division in San Diego. Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office, she was a partner at Ross, Dixon & Bell, LLP, in San Diego, where she handled media law cases and other commercial litigation. Jodi previously worked as a daily news reporter for The Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle-Gazette, covering politics and legal issues, and was founding editor of The National Jurist, a national magazine for law students. Jodi serves on SPJ's national board as Region 11 director and on SPJ’s national FOI Committee and Legal Defense Fund Committee. She is SPJ Project Sunshine Chair for Southern California and a board member of the SPJ San Diego Pro Chapter and was president of the San Diego Pro Chapter from 2007-09. She also serves as editor of Lawyers Club News, the monthly newsletter of Lawyers Club of San Diego, a bar association dedicated to the advancement of women in the law and society, and she freelances for San Diego Lawyer magazine.

Charles Davis
Bio (click to expand) picture Charles N. Davis is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Davis worked for nearly ten years as a journalist, working for newspapers, magazines and a news service in Georgia and Florida. As a national correspondent for Lafferty Publications, a Dublin-based news wire service for UK publications, Davis reported from the US on banking, international finance and regulatory issues for seven years before leaving full-time journalism to seek a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Florida.

At Florida, Davis served as a research fellow in the College of Journalism and Communication’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, assisting reporters and citizens with FOI questions at the state and federal level. He earned his Ph.D. in 1995 and has since taught at Georgia Southern University and Southern Methodist University before joining the MU faculty in 1999.


Mike Farrell
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Mike Farrell serves as director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and as an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He began teaching as an adjunct in 1980 at Northern Kentucky University, continued as a graduate teaching assistant at UK in 1996, and has been a full-time faculty member there since 2000. He won the college teaching award in 2006.

He teaches reporting, media ethics, media law, journalism history, editing, media law, covering religion news and column writing.

He was a reporter, city editor and managing editor during a 20-year career at The Kentucky Post.

A native of Northern Kentucky, he earned his undergraduate degree at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees at UK, where he focused on media law. He is a member of the Bluegrass Chapter and co-adviser of the UK student chapter of SPJ.


Jennifer Karchmer
Bio (click to expand) picture Jennifer Karchmer is an independent journalist who has worked in print, radio, TV and Internet-based reporting since 1991. She is a member of SPJ Western Washington Pro chapter.

In 2012, Jennifer was awarded First Place in the SPJ Northwest Excellence in Journalism Contest for her research and writing on Iceland as a free press haven. She was also awarded news citations by the Washington Press Association for her international reporting and for “The Transparency Report,” a self-produced series on the coal port proposal near Bellingham, WA.

Jennifer has worked for the Associated Press, McClatchy, Gannett and CNN. Currently, she writes for the environmental and watchdog newspaper Whatcom Watch and teaches journalism at Western Washington University.


Donald W. Meyers
Utah County Reporter
The Salt Lake Tribune
(801) 448-6106
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Donald W. Meyers has been at a reporter at The Salt Lake Tribune since July 2007. Prior to that, he was the editorial page editor of the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah for more than eight years, as well as having been a reporter at daily and weekly newspapers in Utah and New Jersey. He majored in Journalism at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and Brigham Young University. He is a past-president of the Utah Headliners Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists and is a member of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Media
Oklahoma State University
206 Paul Miller
Stillwater, OK 74078-4053
405-744-8277
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Joey Senat, an associate journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, writes a blog, foioklahoma.blogspot.com, for FOI Oklahoma Inc., a nonprofit representing a statewide coalition of open government advocates.

His model letter for requesting public records in Oklahoma is widely used. He also wrote a citizens guide to the state’s open records and meeting laws.

Senat has spoken on FOI, First Amendment and journalism education issues at dozens of professional and academic conferences, including the AEJMC National Conference, IRE National Conference, IRE Better Watchdog Workshops and SPJ Region 8 conferences. In summer 2012, he conducted open records training sessions across the Midwest for SPJ.

For his work to advance government transparency, Senat received the 2007 Marian Opala First Amendment Award and the 2005 Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.

Senat has been published in Quill and the IRE Journal. He reported for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and the Tulsa (Okla.) World. He earned academic degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Memphis State University and LSU.


Lynn Walsh
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Lynn Walsh is the investigative producer for WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Together with the Contact 5 Investigative Team, Lynn works to produce stories that hold local officials accountable and expose waste and corruption throughout the community.

A Cum Laude Graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Lynn believes in government transparency, First Amendment rights for all and government accountability on both sides of the aisle.

Her early career started as a reporter for The Government Channel in Athens, Ohio where she covered city and county issues for the citizens and students living in Athens County. Her career includes experience as an investigative video journalist for Texas Watchdog, a non-profit news website in Houston where she primarily focused her investigative pieces on the Houston Independent School District. Other media organizations where Lynn played an integral role include the website palestra.net, Ohio Watchdog, The Buckeye Institute and WSYX/WTTE all located in Columbus, OH, WRGT/WKEF in Dayton, Ohio, WMAR in Baltimore, and “The Today Show” in New York City.

As a freelance blogger for the Radio Television Digital News Association, Lynn is always interested in new projects whether it is covering an event or developing a PR/Marketing Campaign.

Home > Freedom of Information > FOIA: It's always there

Freedom of Information
FOIA: It's always there
Debated, disliked, sometimes scorned, it remains the cornerstone of openness

By Paul McMasters
Published in Quill, October 1996

The Freedom of Information Act was not very popular in Washington, D.C., especially among federal officials, on whose shoulders the burden of compliance would rest.

When President Johnson signed the act into law on July 4, 1966, he chose to do so on his Texas ranch, far from the nation’s capital, press conferences and television cameras. No one from the small band of legislators, lawyers and journalists who fought so hard for its enactment was on hand.

The act had only one day to go before dying of presidential neglect in the form of a pocket veto.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a law that spawned parallel "sunshine laws" in all 50 states. A law that has served as a model for nations around the world trying to make government more accessible and accountable to their citizens. A law that set out to make manifest the Jeffersonian principle of an informed citizenry.

Thirty years later, the friends of FOIA in official Washington remain few and far between and the complaints familiar: The FOIA is an unwelcome drain on scarce resources. It is overused by prisoners and aliens to overtax the system. It is abused by lawyers to circumvent court discovery rules. It is employed by businesses to gain unfair advantage over competitors. It is exploited by journalists to invade personal privacy and endanger national security.

Those complaints aside, the FOIA has compelled federal agencies to yield millions of documents relating to government operations and performance. Every week, a news organization, scholar or public-interest group somewhere reports information of significance to public health or safety or good governance — based on material gleaned from FOIA requests.

Still, the FOIA has been something of a regulatory pariah over its 30-year history. Congressional oversight and agency reporting have been superficial and episodic at best. Funding has been inadequate. Compliance has ranged from enthusiastic implementation to sullen resistance to active interference.

From the outset, the FOIA was considered a journalist’s tool, but journalists never have made up more than a fraction of the requesters. Most journalists either malign or ignore it. That lack of respect and recognition bewilders veteran FOIA advocates.

"Even when journalists don’t use the FOIA, it works for them," said Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "This law creates a legal presumption of openness and accountability. Given how much of a struggle it is to get access with the law in place, I can’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have that kind of legislative mandate."

Nonetheless, journalistic frustration is sometimes palpable.

"We have been led like rabbits down a hole," said Max Jennings, editor of the Dayton Daily News, which recently published an award-winning series on military courts-martial, despite delay and denial of records from the Department of Defense.

The Daily News has filed suit in U.S. District Court in Dayton, but "the federal judge has delayed rulings in the case for almost a year," Jennings said. "My experience is that the FOIA simply doesn’t work most of the time for journalists. There are few news organizations and reporters who have the patience, money and determination to work through what seems an inevitable series of appeals, requests and other roadblocks."

"It’s fair to criticize the FOIA," said Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House committee with FOIA oversight, "but the act does positive things and it needs to get credit for that." Now a privacy and information policy consultant in Washington, D.C., Gellman pointed out that "more than 90% of FOIA requesters get everything they want. They don’t always get it on time or with the fee waivers they are entitled to, but the law works—fitfully, slowly, but it works."

It worked more fitfully and slowly during the 1980s, when administration policy confounded much of the act’s intentions.

Then, in October of 1993, President Clinton issued a memo to department and agency heads mandating a new attitude toward the FOIA. "The act is a vital part of the participatory system of government," Clinton said to the officials. "I am committed to enhancing its effectiveness in my administration."

At the same time, Attorney General Janet Reno reversed a Department of Justice policy established in 1981. She said that the department no longer would defend an agency’s denial of an FOIA request merely because there was a "substantial legal basis" for doing so.

There was some follow-through.

The Justice Department, under Reno, has made a number of changes, including reducing request backlogs in some areas; reviewing more than 500 pending cases, resulting in the release of a huge volume of material without court battles; and changing a number of department policies to improve and expedite the release of information.

The Department of Energy has released much more material and changed classification policies in the wake of news stories about human radiation experiments.

On October 16, 1995, Clinton signed Executive Order 12958, which reversed a presumption of secrecy in force for many years and established a mandatory declassification scheme.

On May 16 of this year, Reno surveyed federal agency and department heads to determine how well the administration’s access initiatives have been implemented. She said agencies now are getting more information out to the public and that some agencies have begun to reverse the trend of increasing backlogs, although others have not yet been able to do so.

"Progress on fighting FOIA backlogs can be slow, but we keep shining the light on the problem and are committed to improving our performance," Reno said.

While praising these developments, Kirtley pointed out that the Clinton administration’s record on access is spotted. The Reporters Committee compiles an annual report on restricting access to government information. The 1996 report lists hundreds of instances when the public or press was denied access.

Over the years, this well-established tradition of governmental resistance to releasing information has generated hundreds of court cases, including more than 20 Supreme Court decisions.

With a few exceptions, court decisions have tended to favor the point of view of the agencies, especially in cases involving personal privacy and national security, according to Harry Hammitt, editor of Access Reports and a long-time chronicler of FOI legislation and court cases.

"The courts always start off their decisions with lip-service about the FOIA being a disclosure law and that the exemptions should be construed narrowly, then they go ahead and give away the store to the government," said Hammitt.

That tendency is compounded by the fact that "media people usually will not go to court to challenge denials of their requests," said Hammitt. "Reporters are more than willing to go to court, but editors and publishers have decided they don’t really want to spend the money."

As general counsel of the National Security Archive from 1989 to 1994, Sheryl Walter successfully litigated FOIA cases that established significant precedents for ensuring access to records, and now works inside the government as counsel for the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy and serves as president of the American Society of Access Professionals.

Walter agreed that many times "there is a presumption among judges that what the agency did was rational and responsive to the law." But, she added, "In my experience, the courts have been willing to look beyond that and in some cases rule in favor of the plaintiffs. In fact, I’ve been impressed at how seriously judges take their responsibility and put the government agencies to the test."

In three decades, court decisions, new laws and changing technology have taken their toll on the original promise of the FOIA. Even its most avid supporters concede there are problems that need to be addressed.

Gellman sees the need for "substantive" changes in the act itself. "Some exemptions need to be narrowed. Some need to be eliminated. The law needs to do a better job of describing litigation requirements, and the guidelines for attorneys’ fees need to be revised to provide more money for people who win cases."

Some of the more common complaints circulating within the FOI community:

— The law requires agencies to respond to FOIA requests within 10 days, but actual responses can take years. While there are many reasons for such delays, one important factor is the lack of resources. Agencies simply do not have enough money and people to handle the 600,000 requests that come in each year.
— There are few incentives for government workers to release information, but they face severe penalties if they release information that is sensitive.
— Policies on responding to FOIA requests vary widely from agency to agency.
— There are perplexing contradictions and inconsistencies between language of the FOIA and other laws, such as the Privacy Act, the Computer Matching and Privacy Act, the Government in Sunshine Act, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Computer Security Act, the Whistleblower law, and other regulations.
— An increasing compartmentalization of information and development of external systems of communications allow agencies to circumvent the law.
— Monitoring of compliance with the FOIA has not been a priority with either Congress or federal agencies, so proposals for legislative or policy changes must rely on anecdotal evidence. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has proposed legislation, now attached to the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, that would require better reporting.

Such problems lend impetus to calls for a reduced reliance on the FOIA.

Gary Bass of OMB Watch, a public-interest organization, said computer technology and the Internet offer a great opportunity. "Using FOIA to get information is costly, time-consuming, and really not as useful to the average citizen as it is to others," Bass said. "The FOIA should become the vehicle of last resort for public access. If government did its job responsibly, it would take the initiative in making information available."

Jennings also champions direct electronic release of government information. "It is technically possible in many instances for government to put its records online at the same time they are generated, and then the American people can access them speedily and completely, without interpretation.

"If we could reach national understanding about making all public records available quickly, online, it would eliminate millions of dollars the government now spends processing an avalanche of individual requests."

Despite the promise of technology, FOIA’s future is fraught with challenge.

Looming large on the horizon are even more intense conflicts between access and privacy concerns. The U.S. government, business interests and electronic industry are feeling increasing domestic and international pressure to be more restrictive about access to government databanks.

Hammitt predicted more court battles over agency records in electronic format. "Who has ownership of these records and what are the obligations of the agency to search for them? Is something government workers download into their computers an agency record? To what extent can an agency trump its obligation to release information by asserting that it is publicly available on a database or the Internet? Add to all this a host of unresolved issues in the area of electronic dissemination of information."

The rush of federal agencies to a paperless government has brought into sharp relief an abysmal record- management system. Recent testimony before the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy predicted massive costs and slowdowns in access to records unless government records management systems are brought into the 21st Century.

Despite these problems and challenges, Walter remains positive about both the FOIA’s past and its future.

"The thing that strikes me is that over all these years, the FOIA has stood the test of time. It has been a model all over the world. It has a heritage all the way back to the Magna Carta. More importantly, it has made a difference in how the people view their government and how government views its responsibilities to the people."

[Top]


Paul McMasters is the First Amendment Ombudsman at The Freedom Forum, a former national president of SPJ and served four years as SPJ’s National FOI Chair.

Copyright © 1996-2014 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center
3909 N. Meridian St.
Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789

Contact SPJ Headquarters
Employment Opportunities
Advertise with SPJ