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Republican Senate Could Mean Trouble For FOI; Florida Voters Stand Up For Sunshine


Now that Americans have given control of the U.S. Senate back to the Republicans after 18 months of nominal Democratic control, what can open government advocates expect?

The answer may be more hard times and unfriendly Senate committees.

The GOP takeover means that Republicans will control committee chairs and, thus, be the gatekeepers for the legislative process. This will have an impact on many issues, among them:

* A FOIA exemption for information on “critical infrastructure” or other issues associated with Homeland Security. The compromise language won in 2002 wasn’t the best, but the new majority may try to push even worse language in 2003.

* A possible FOIA exemption for “sensitive but unclassified information.” This becomes more likely with the GOP controlling both houses, plus the White House.

* Legislation designed to punish leaks of classified information--the so-called “Official Secrets Act.” Attorney General John Ashcroft has told Congress that a new, tougher law isn’t necessary, but he also said he’d work with Congress if the issue comes up.

After November 5, it’s almost a sure bet that Alabama’s Richard Shelby will once again chair the Senate Intelligence Committee come January. Shelby has been the prime mover behind anti-leaks legislation and no doubt is still mad over President Clinton’s veto of his bill in 2000 and the Democrats’ quashing of his 2001 edition. In other words, he’ll have a big axe to grind and may put forth a new bill.

*Cameras in federal courts. This issue got further along in the Senate process than ever before with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy in the Judiciary Committee chair. Under Republican control, the bill probably won’t even make it out of committee.

*Restoring the Presidential Records Act. Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) has been trying valiantly to un-do the damage done by President Bush to the Presidential Records Act but will run out of time to get legislation passed this year. Even if he and House Government Reform Committee chair Dan Burton (R-Ind.) succeed in getting a bill moving through the House, the Senate probably will be less friendly to a bill critical of the President.

The change in power underscores the importance of SPJ’s spring lobbying trips to Washington. Our next one is tentatively scheduled for March of 2003. We’ll have our work cut out for us.

Let’s offer congratulations to Florida open government advocates, as well as the electorate. Voters in that state made it much harder for the legislature to create new exemptions to the state Sunshine Law.

Ballot initiative #4 requires a supermajority in both houses in order to pass an exemption. More than 75 percent of Florida voters approved the measure, thanks in no small part to the work of the state’s newspapers and broad-based Sunshine Coalition, of which SPJ was a part.

For more on the coalition’s efforts, visit: http://www.sunshinecoalition.info.

For more information, contact SPJ’s FOI Committee Co-chairs:
Ian Marquand, Missoula, Mont., 406/542-4449 or ian@kpax.com
Charles Davis, Columbia Mo., 573/882-5736 or daviscn@missouri.edu

SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 8; No. 2

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The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization 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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