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Tuesday, October 27, 2015
From the President

Fix FOIA by 50

By Paul Fletcher

The Freedom of Information Act will mark its 50th anniversary next summer.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill, passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, on July 4, 1966, amid much fanfare. Leaders of Sigma Delta Chi, the predecessor of SPJ, had worked Capitol Hill for 10 years to get a federal open records bill passed.

The long-held goal of making public information open and available to its owners — the citizens of this country — was achieved.

The FOIA request became the stock in trade of any investigative journalist. And learning how to negotiate and battle with public information officers became part of the work as well.

In the past few years, the battle has become more pitched. Several different SPJ surveys indicate what many journalists already know: Public information officers are not always cooperative; responses to formal requests are slow, if they come at all; and FOIA isn’t quite working like it's supposed to.

In June, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, held two days of hearings with an unusual goal: to show how agencies weren’t doing their jobs in complying with FOIA. A parade of witnesses, including media representatives, relayed horror stories about long delays, procedural roadblocks and stonewalling. A lawyer for The New York Times testified that he has a simple regular practice to get information for Times reporters: He files a lawsuit.

Here’s a reason to celebrate: Open-government advocates in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are determined to make changes to that closed culture.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 nearly made it through both houses in December; at the start of the new Congress in January, the open-government crowd immediately filed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015.

There are actually two almost identical FOIA reform bills by that name in Congress, one in each house. Both have bipartisan backing.

The House measure, H.R. 653, is sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill. It has passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Senate counterpart, S. 337, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It too has sponsors from both parties: Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Pat Leahy of Vermont.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 would do just what its name implies. These bills would enhance the federal Freedom of Information Act in several ways, including:

• Codifying a “presumption of openness” for federal agencies.

• Requiring agencies to maintain disclosable records in an electronic format.

• Requiring agencies to accept FOI requests by email.

• Dinging agencies that miss deadlines by denying them search and copy fees.

• Making it easier for the public by requiring agencies to post online documents that have been requested at least three times.

• Expanding the authority and duties of the chief FOI officer at every government agency to promote compliance with disclosure requirements.

The push is on to make this the law of the land. SPJ is partnering with the Sunshine in Government Initiative and other media organizations to advocate and lobby for passage of the FOIA Improvement Act.

A campaign with an alliterative name — “Fix FOIA by 50” — seeks to draw attention to the measure and build support for its passage before the 50th anniversary next year.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative and SPJ have been developing resources to participate in the process. You can help fix FOIA by 50.

Visit SPJ's FOIA page and Sunshine in Government Initiative. Then write about it. Broadcast about it. Editorialize about it. Tweet about it. The SPJ website includes a list of 50 suggested tweets to publicize the campaign.

Organize your local SPJ chapter and have members email and write their senators and representatives. The Fix FOIA by 50 movement is the perfect opportunity for your chapter to engage in grass-roots advocacy on behalf of a cause worth fighting for.

A few years ago, a case involving the Virginia FOIA statute was before the U.S. Supreme Court. When making his argument to the justices, a lawyer representing the state government dismissively referred to FOI laws as a “fad” of the 1960s.

A fad? No, he got that wrong. A fad is something that goes out of style.

2015-16 SPJ President Paul Fletcher has been publisher and editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly in Richmond, Va., since 1989. He joined the newspaper the previous year as news editor, after practicing law in Southwest Virginia for three years. Fletcher has been a member of SPJ since 1992 and was previously president of the Virginia Pro chapter.

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