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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

David Cuillier
Director and Associate Professor
School of Journalism
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
Work: 520-626-9694
Email
@DavidCuillier
Bio (click to expand) David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he researches and teaches access to public records, and is co-author with Charles Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." He served as FOI chair 2007-11 before becoming a national officer and serving as SPJ president in 2013-14.

Before entering academia, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Pacific Northwest. He has testified before Congress on FOI issues twice and provides newsroom training in access on behalf of SPJ. His long-term goal is to see a unified coalition of journalism organizations fighting for press freedom and funded through an endowed FOI war chest.


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
@SAlbarado
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 and an honorary doctor of letters from Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, La.

His journalism career of more than 40 years 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), a news editor and a city 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 a past president of SPJ and a current member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

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.


Ana-Klara H. Anderson, Ph.D., Esq.
Attorney
Thomas & LoCicero PL
601 South Boulevard
Tampa, Florida 33606
Work: 813-984-3069
Fax: 813-984-3070
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Ana-Klara Anderson is an associate in Thomas & LoCicero’s Tampa office and frequently handles litigation and transactional matters for English and Spanish-language media clients in the areas of First Amendment law, sweepstakes and contests, commercial litigation, and arts and entertainment law. She earned her J.D. from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and her Ph.D. from UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. Ana-Klara has worked as a freelance journalist for the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, and as a news clerk for the Washington Post. Before graduate school, she served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq.

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 has written reports for SPJ's 2012, 2013 and 2014 Sunshine Week projects on surveys she conducted on the strained relationship between reporters and government public information officers. She also chairs the SPJ FOI Committee’s Subcommittee On FERPA. She has also 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 and her bachelors from the University of Georgia. She is an assistant professor of journalism at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta. 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.

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
Dean
Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Georgia
120 Hooper Street
Athens, GA 30602
Work: 706-248-6636
E-mail

Mike Farrell
Director, Scripps Howard First Amendment Center
Associate professor
School of Journalism & Telecommunications
144 Grehan
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Ky 40506-0042
859-257-4848 (w)
859-431-2057 (h)
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.


Kathryn Foxhall
Freelance Reporter
Washington, D.C., area
3921 Crittenden St.
Hyattsville, Maryland 20781
Work: 301-779-8239
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Kathryn Foxhall has covered health in Washington for almost 40 years, including 14 years (1978-1992) as editor of the American Public Health Association’s newspaper.

She accidently became a reporter after applying for a typing job at the now defunct Selma Free-Press in Selma, Alabama, with her new B.A. from Birmingham-Southern College.

Currently freelancing for Contemporary Pediatrics and other publications, she previously worked for the American Psychological Association’s magazine and for newsletters on substance abuse and medical coding.

After years of getting a dynamic education by speaking frankly with sources on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies, she became alarmed as federal workers came under rules prohibiting them from communicating with journalists without the oversight of the public relations offices—in reality oversight by people in power.

That concern has led to a number of efforts including doing “shoe leather” work on the letter to President Obama from 38 journalism and other groups in 2014.


Ashley Jost
Higher education reporter
Columbia Daily Tribune
101 N. 4th Street
Columbia, Mo.
Office: 573-815-1721
Cell: 314-397-5484
E-mail
@ajost

Jennifer Karchmer
Independent journalist
RWB Correspondent
2505 Monroe Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
518 569-9118
E-mail
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 is based in France studying freedom of the press in Europe. She is an internationally accredited TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher.


Danielle McLean
Reporter
Somerville Journal
91 Glenwood Road, Apt. 1
Somerville, Mass., 02145
Phone: 508-725-8716
E-mail
@DMcLeanWL
Bio (click to expand) picture Over the past three years, Danielle McLean has been the reporter for 13 different community beats at numerous news publications around Massachusetts. She is currently a reporter for the Somerville Journal, a weekly newspaper owned by GateHouse Media New England- covering a Boston-area city of more than 75,000 residents. McLean covers Somerville's rapidly-changing demographic shift, massive development surge, and acts as a watchdog while the government pushes more and more initiatives that encourage those changes.

The Hofstra graduate was elected President of SPJ's New England chapter in December. Since, the chapter has hosted a successful Region 1 conference at Boston University, has grown enrollment, and added five new board members.

Last winter, McLean was given a New England Newspaper and Press Association government reporting award for her coverage on a proposed development in Maynard, Massachusetts.


Linda Petersen
Managing Editor
The Valley Journals
12702 Ann Christine Ct.
Riverton, Utah
801-254-5974 X 17
801-554-7513
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.


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
Investigative Producer
WPTV NewsChannel 5
1100 Banyan Blvd.
West Palm Beach, Florida 33401
614-579-7937
E-mail
@LWalsh
Bio (click to expand) picture Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has been working in investigative journalism at the national level as well as locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. Currently she leads the KNSD investigative team at the NBC TV station in San Diego, California, where she is the Investigative Executive Producer.

Most recently, she was working as data producer and investigative reporter for the E.W. Scripps National Desk producing stories for the 30+ Scripps news organizations across the country. Before moving to the national desk, she worked as the Investigative Producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5, the Scripps owned TV station in West Palm Beach, Florida. She has won state and local awards as well as multiple Emmy’s for her stories. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information.

Her passion lies in telling multimedia stories that deliver hard hitting facts across multiple platforms. She describes herself as a "data-viz nerd" who is obsessed with new online tools to share information on the web and mobile applications.

She is a contributor to the Radio Television Digital News Association blog and serves as Secretary-Treasurer for SPJ and is a member of SPJ’s FOI, Generation J and Ethics committees.

Lynn is always interested in new projects surrounding FOI, public information access, mobile reporting tools, social media and interactive journalism. She is a proud Bobcat Alumna and graduated from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

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."

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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.

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