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Society Asks Supreme Court to Limit Government Agencies' Claims to FOI Act Exemptions
Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1500
INDIANAPOLIS - In a friend-of-the-court legal brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Society of Professional Journalists says the Court should uphold an appeals court decision that limits a government agency's ability to claim the "intra-agency" exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.
The case could determine whether a federal agency can shield from disclosure communications submitted to it by private persons or groups if they are named a "consultant" to the agency.
"The Freedom of Information Act is an important tool not only for journalists but for the public at large," said Ray Marcano, SPJ President and regional editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "It's a way for us to review what government does and how it does it, and any exemptions should be as narrow as possible."
The case stems from a 1995 incident in which the Klamath Basin Tribes and the Klamath Water Users Protective Association, a non-profit group composed primarily of local irrigation districts and other water users, corresponded with the Department of the Interior stating their positions on water allocation in the Klamath Basin of Oregon.
Both groups submitted FOIA requests asking to view the other organization's correspondence with the Department. The Klamath Basin Tribes were allowed access to the association's correspondence, but the association was not allowed to view the Tribes' correspondence. The Tribes had signed an agreement with the Department in which they were labeled "consultants" in the project. The association signed no such agreement.
The Klamath Water Users Protective Association sued the Department of the Interior, claiming it violated the Freedom of Information Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the Department's claim that the correspondence it refused to release was protected under exemptions to FOIA regarding "intra-agency or inter-agency" communications.
"The Freedom of Information Act, though it is frequently cumbersome to use and slow to provide results, is still one of a reporter's most valuable tools," said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel. "Exemptions under the Act should be construed narrowly or the law's purpose would be defeated. The Supreme Court must uphold the appeals court ruling, or we'll see a further erosion in the law."
The Society joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of Newspaper Editors this week in filing the friend-of-the-court brief in the case, United States Department of the Interior vs. Klamath Water Users Protection Association.