Farm Bill Update: Showdown looms on FOIA’s balanced protections versus special interest

Senator Charles Grassley is again poised — as soon as today, although the timing is far from clear — to present a broad exemption that would set a bad precedent for the administration of FOIA.  We recently wrote about our temporary win.

The proposal would exempt from disclosure the GPS coordinates of farms as well as basic contact information for owners and operators of farms and food processing facilities. Such entities are corporations, although Sen. Grassley and others are arguing that these locations are both businesses and individual residences, thus they deserve special privacy protections.

We strongly believe that the FOIA already balances the public interest in disclosure with trade secrets, individual privacy, national security and other interests. A better approach would be to reinforce the notion that existing laws such as the Freedom of Information Act already protect personal privacy.

New, unnecessary exemptions set a bad precedent for keeping the public informed of important public safety events.  For example, the FOIA’s existing balanced protections were adequate when the USA Today reported on why a recall of tainted beef didn’t include lunchboxes, waste in the food subsidy payments system or shortcomings in the federal farm loan program.

Successful fight to stop farm bill secrecy — for now

Senator Patrick Leahy and open government groups have stopped at least for now the Grassley amendment that would bar disclosure of basic phone directory information for owners and operators of livestock and poultry processing facilities and farms.  We explained our concerns about the provision quickly, other groups weighed in as well, and Senator Leahy’s worked diligently to explain the ramifications of this seeming milquetoast provision to his colleagues, and it became clearer that the proposal had problems.  We appreciate the delay to afford open government groups the opportunity to work with Senators Grassley and Boxer to find a better approach that upholds the public’s interest in a transparent and accountable government.

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Senate drops controversial Title V proposals, passes FY13 intel authorization bill (S. 3454)

The nine members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative are pleased the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (S. 3454) does not include proposals that would have curtailed the flow of information to the public about national security and foreign affairs. The media takes seriously the obligation to consider potential harms from disclosures of sensitive information while reporting the news. These proposals simply went too far in cutting off vital information to the public about world events and national security issues and had not been subject to adequate consideration by Congress.
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Fixing FOIA: Commentators reacting to DOJ’s reversal

The reaction was swift when the Justice Department confirmed in a letter to Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy that they would not move forward with their plan to say documents don’t exist when, in fact, they do.  You can read the reaction through a simple Google search.

Fixing FOIA update: Justice backs away from “lying”

Today we’re happy to note the Justice Department is withdrawing its proposed rule to sanction responding to certain FOIA requests for law enforcement records as if records did not exist when, in fact, information does exist (but is out of FOIA’s reach).

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Senate Approves FOIA Delays Commission, Adds Momentum to Improving FOIA

The Senate yesterday passed legislation (S. 3111) that would create a commission to study delays and other problems with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“This legislation adds momentum to get to the bottom of FOIA’s longstanding limits,” said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. “Too often the first advice to getting information from government is, ‘Avoid FOIA if you can.’ FOIA should help people obtain the information they seek from our government in a timely manner. While FOIA is vital to ensuring transparency when it’s inconvenient or embarrassing, using FOIA can be slow and unreliable. We hope this study will find ways FOIA can work better for agencies and the public. We applaud Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) for their longstanding efforts to make FOIA work better.”

The Congress and executive branch have recently focused on improving FOIA.

In 2007, Congress enacted amendments that created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) within the National Archives and Records Administration to mediate FOIA disputes and recommend improvements to FOIA, improve incentives for federal agencies to avoid open records lawsuits and require agencies to track more information about their own FOIA compliance.

Congress has held several hearings in the past year to keep tabs on OGIS as it starts up and take the pulse of FOIA.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced it would create a FOIA Dashboard to help the public view agency FOIA performance and track improvements in agency operations.

The House of Representatives must still take up the legislation.

For more on the legislation, see Sen. Leahy’s statement and Senator Cornyn’s release.

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