Every September, the agencies that handle Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests rush to close as many open requests as possible before the end of the fiscal year, flooding journalists’ mail boxes with responses. And after chatting with journalism’s most well-versed resource on FOIA requests, Jason Leopold, senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News, it seemed only appropriate to celebrate the work of other journalists who have utilized this great tool to bring important news to the public.
We found many examples of great national and local FOIA reporting. While several of the stories rely on freedom of information requests to gather information, even more are about those laws and requests themselves. It is also interesting to note that journalists’ requests are changing the FOIA landscape, forcing agencies to take a long, hard look at how they work with the press and what records are eventually made
After the Tribune requested an index of Mayor Emanuel’s private messages in an effort to find messages relating to official government business, a local judge ruled that, in fact, Emanuel was not required to release that information. His lawyer, and the judge, argued that simply because some private systems and devices were used to send business messages, did not mean all messages sent through those platforms were required to be cataloged
During 2017’s Sunshine Week, The Post and Courier celebrated the many stories they’ve been able to publish thanks to South Carolina’s FOIA laws. From stories about government crackdowns on beer festivals to incidents of concussion in college football and extreme spending by South Carolina officials, journalists from The Post and Courier’s various departments have used FOIA requests to dig deeper and find out what’s happening in their state.
Following requests by North Carolina journalists for texts from state officials, state Attorney General Josh Stein said that North Carolina would have to adapt and learn how to catalog important digital documents, like texts, which need to be part of the public record and which should be much easier to process in this new era. The requests were submitted by the Sunshine Center of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, with partners from WRAL News, the Associated Press, The News & Observer of Raleigh, the Carolina Public Press, the Greensboro News & Record, WECT and the Charlotte Observer participating. While a solution to easier access to texts and other digital records is still a ways off, the work of these journalists will ensure that this becomes – and remains – a priority.
When reporters at The Boston Globe saw that government agencies and officials were constantly citing terrorism concerns when denying FOIA requests, they got suspicious and decided to say something. The requests being denied weren’t coming solely from journalists. Requests from organizations like PETA, as well as other nonprofit groups and even local lawyers were denied, with terrorism cited as the primary concern. By holding these agencies accountable for their over-used excuse, the Globe is ensuring that, in the future, requesters will have a better chance of digging up records that serve the public interest.
The Associated Press reported on the amount of money the Obama administration spent in its final year in power defending itself from lawsuits related to FOIA request denials. The administration also set records for the number of denials and “non-existent” records replies it sent out, making it harder for journalists and members of the public to get their hands on many records that should have been accessible.
When professors from the University of Arizona law school filed FOIA requests with the Department of Homeland Security for records on border checkpoints, the DHS fought back, and the ACLU got involved to sue on behalf of the FOIA filers. The federal magistrate agreed, saying that the government is only able to operate their checkpoints because of the transparency that allows them to be monitored. Yet more proof that fighting for FOIA requests can change the way future FOIA requests get handled, regardless of whether the person fighting is a lawyer, a corporation or a journalist.
When the Asbury Park Press requested payroll data amounting to $783 million paid to 10,000 federal employees, all of whom worked outside of the U.S., the Trump administration said no, even though that data has been routinely released each year over the past decade. The paper filed an appeal, hoping to get the data released and added to their DataUniverse portal, which allows citizens to research public records and view these important documents for themselves whenever they so desire.
In a landmark battle, the Chicago Tribune won a case in the Illinois appellate court against the College of DuPage’s fundraising foundation. Thanks to a legal battle appealing a denial from the foundation to release records requested under the state’s FOIA law, the paper saw the denial overturned and the foundation ordered to comply with open-records laws. Previously, the college had argued that because the foundation was a private entity, they could not easily release those records, but the courts agreed with the Tribune that the excuse was flimsy and that the records were in the public interest.
If you have a good FOIA story, whether it’s one about your publication’s FOIA fights or a story reported thanks to records obtained through a FOIA request, we want to hear about it — email Jennifer Peters at email@example.com and your story could be included in a future post. And for more information on how you can add FOIA-based reporting to your publication, check out these tips from Jason Leopold, the renowned “FOIA Terrorist.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.