Huge FOI News

Charles Davis
December 14, 2007 — 1,220 views  
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Reversing a trend toward secrecy, federal agencies would have to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests under legislation approved by the Senate Friday.

The bill, approved by voice vote, commits the government to be more open, shifting policies that since the Sept. 11 attacks have emphasized security in responding to requests for information.

The measure makes minor revisions to previously passed legislation to meet House concerns. The House could take it up next week, before adjourning for the year.

The bill would give the 40-year-old act its first makeover in a decade, streamlining a process plagued by long delays and bureaucratic obstacles. It is supported by dozens of media outlets, including The Associated Press.

It restores a presumption of disclosure standard that would commit agencies to releasing requested information unless there is a finding that such disclosure could do harm.

After Sept. 11, then Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed agencies against releasing information when there was any uncertainty over security or law enforcement exemptions.

The "Open Government Act" will "help to reverse the troubling trends of excessive delays and lax FOIA compliance in our government and help to restore the public's trust in their government," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored the bill with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Cornyn tried in previous years to push a similar bill he authored through the Senate. When he was stat attorney general, Cornyn was responsible for enforcing open government laws.

"It's encouraging to see us so close to enacting sweeping reforms that will let more sunshine in government and increase the people's right to know," Cornyn said.

Leahy has been working with the Justice Department on the legislation and the administration is expected to support it.

It would take steps to ensure that agencies abide by the 20-day deadline for responding to FOIA requests, including a requirement that FOIA offices get requests for information to the appropriate agency office within 10 days of receiving the request.

Agencies that fail to meet the 20-day deadline would have to refund search and duplication fees for noncommercial requesters.

The legislation creates a tracking system for FOIA requests to help members of the public and the media and establishes a FOIA hotline service for all federal agencies to deal with problems.

FOIA would be applied to government records held by private contractors and a FOIA ombudsman would be established to provide an alternative to litigation over disclosure disputes.

Charles Davis

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Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the School. Davis' scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and new media law, including jurisdictional issues, intellectual property and online libel. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost's Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award.