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Congress updates FOIA

FOI Alert Volume 2 Issue 2

This was the biggest news of all at convention: After 30 years, Congress finally moved to update the Freedom of Information Act.

And the media is telling us all why that's so important.
A couple of sample leads from publications across the country this month:

"Prying secrets from federal bureaucrats has depended for 30 years on a law written in the age of carbon paper. Last week, Americans' right to know was nudged toward the electronic age."
--The Associated Press

"Thirty years after it was enacted, a law that allows the public and thew news media access to federal records is on the verge of catching up with the computer age."
-- The Washington Post

"A bill to make vast amounts of electronically stored federal information available to the public was approved by the House and Senate Tuesday."

Even student journalists covering the convention had a story on the historic approval of the FOI amendments.

Journalists are finally starting to pay attention to access issues. Still, there's more that can be done.

In Indiana, a coalition of librarians, neighborhood groups, academicians, researchers, and the media held an access conference Sept. 21 giving citizens the necessary tools to track down information.

Nearly 200 people attended, mostly non-journalists. A similar event is planned by a foundation started by Wisconsin broadcasters.

Kudos to coalitions in more than 20 states that continue to reach out to the public in education efforts.

A convention panel also debated just how well the new act may fare.

Scott Armstrong, author, journalist and lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit challenging access to White House computer messages, said journalists must remain vigilant and not assume government will easily comply with the updated law.

The recent decision in that case does not recognize the National Security Council as a federal agency which will leave virtual discretion to the president to destroy White House records.

"If they want to destroy the records, they're gone," he said. "This lops off a big piece of the Freedom of Information Act."

Patrice McDermott, chairwoman of The Public Access Working Group, said legislative pieces are in place but policies governing the implementation of laws has been unusually slow in forming.

Beryl Howell, staff member to Sen. Patrick Leahy who worked tirelessly for passage of EFOIA, said the public will be better served by a quicker release of documents.

In the case of a military base closing, for example, a citizen or journalist could receive an expedited answer if government action is imminent.

An urgency to inform the public should then be a priority for release.

Sorting out EFOIA will take time. Making it work may take more time. Learning how to use it as an information-gathering tool will test our patience. Howell continues to remain interested in hearing if the Act is working well for you.

If any journalists or citizens have "horror" stories with their requests, please forward them (in writing only) to:

Beryl Howell
Senior Counsel,
Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Anti-Trust, Business Rights and Competition
Hart Senate Office Building, Room 815
Washington, DC 20501

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