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E-FOIA set high standards; government must now encourage agency compliance


Contact: Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment counsel, Baker & Hostetler, in Washington, D.C., at  (202) 861-1500.

After four years, incomplete compliance with federal regulations and inconsistency in information format remain the biggest shortfalls in the implementation of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996.

That was the report of Ian Marquand, national chair of the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee. Marquand testified before a House subcommittee on June 14 regarding the state of the nation’s federal sunshine laws -- and measures that could make them stronger. (Complete testimony of Marquand) Marquand thanked the committee members for taking time to examine the success of the laws and added that there was much room for improvement in regard to implementation by individual agencies.

"Many agencies, in an attempt to `appear’ in compliance, are posting anything and everything an agency produces without any particular logic," said Marquand. "The information has been found unreliable and -- in some instances -- inaccurate."

The hearing, which was called by the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information, and Technology of the House Government Reform Committee, focused on implementation of E-FOIA. These provisions represent a major revision to the 30-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and were intended to guarantee public access to federal government information electronically.

Marquand pointed out that the quality of information available at different agency sites was inconsistent. According to Marquand, Internet sites operated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the FBI, and the State Department receive particularly bad reviews from working journalists. Those that drew praise, on the other hand, include the Census Bureau, the Center for Disease Control, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Marquand appeared with Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Patrice McDermott, a policy analyst for OMB Watch. Testifying in an earlier panel was Joshua Gotbaum, executive associate director and comptroller at the Office of Management and Budget, Deputy Associate Attorney General Ethan Posner, and the Honorable Henry J. McIntyre, director of the Directorate for Freedom Information Security and Review at the Department of Defense.

"The authors of this act intended not only to add requirements for providing informationelectronically but also to overcome the most serious obstacles preventing the public’s successful enjoyment of a federal FOI program," said Dalglish. She went on to explain that two of the most serious obstacles were lengthy delays and the over-broad interpretation of privacy exemptions.

Marquand agreed saying, "Journalists work in an industry that has become increasingly time-sensitive. As a result, long waits for information become problematic."

The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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