Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the United States Customs and Border Protection to compel the agency to produce documents relating to a relatively new comprehensive intelligence database of people and cargo crossing the U.S. border.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

Special congrats to the FOIA advocacy website MuckRock, they got a shout out from the Daily Show this week for one of their FOIA requests:

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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FOIA should be proactive, not reactive

I’ve noticed a few interesting improvements at various local governments across the country that are taking a more proactive approach to Freedom of Information Act requests — and I’m impressed.

Gainesville, Fla., recently opened its commissioners’ (as well as the mayor’s) emails through an online database. No need for a FOIA request, just click and search away. Ann Arbor, Mich.,— along with Greensboro, N.C. — now publishes its FOIA request log online (something every city should do). A new plan in Albuquerque, N.M., could give wider access to the state’s court records like PACER does at the federal level. Riverside, Calif., logged almost 16,000 views in one week on a new database it launched containing “information on city finances, police and fire calls, and access to thousands of other records.”

While these are to highlight just a few of the good examples, I think (and hope) that we will start to see a trend where local governments realize that relying on technology to assist them in handling public records requests will ultimately cut down on their cost, increase transparency and make for more satisfied citizens. Anything that public officials can do to utilize tools already in existence for open government purposes should be mandatory. Legislators create laws, in most cases, for our own good. We ought to insist the same logic be applied to state agencies and officials by forcing efficiency on them.

Freedom of information laws should first operate on the principle that all information should be readily available to the public at low or no cost, and then work backward (i.e. exemptions for security reasons, etc.).

On the federal level, a bipartisan bill known as the Freedom of Information Improvement Act was recently introduce in the Senate and would, among other things, restrict the use of FOIA’s “deliberative process” exemption — an overused and, in some cases, purposely misapplied exemption. Additionally, Andrew Becker, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting, will serve on the federal FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee.

Local governments should be working with local news outlets and journalists in the same way. We have plenty of ideas on how they can improve their open records processes from low-cost fixes, to minor tech training for open records officers, to other solutions that would just require the use of free third-party tools (not being able to receive records via email should is ridiculous). Government agencies should not be waiting on complaints or lawsuits before deciding that their FOIA processes need updating.

Many of the basic documents that journalists often request — FOIA logs, emails, official memos or documentation — should be readily available and searchable online. There’s no good reason to keep the antiquated status quo.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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Must read FOI stories – 7/11/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • A CIA employee with the highest level of security clearance tried to get the agency to release info that was a decade old. They told him no, so he submitted a FOIA request and it “destroyed his entire career.”
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting is collecting ideas on how to improve the FOIA request process. Have ideas? Fill out the form here.
  • Two local activist groups file suit against a Florida county claiming that the commission skirted state open-government laws in allowing a controversial business park to go forward.
  • Which U.S. agencies sprung for the extra legroom provided by first class? MuckRock obtained Agency Premium Travel Reportswhich show how millions in upgrade fees were spent from 2009-2013.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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Must read FOI stories – 7/07/14

Every week I’ll be doing a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me (Missed last week because of 4th of July, so you’re getting a double dose this week.)

  • No moving targets in FOIA denials: Missouri judge rules that government agencies cannot give a different exemption than the original one used to deny the FOIA request after being sued.
  • Judicial Watch, a government accountability group, filed a legal motion about the “lost emails” of ex-IRS official Lois Learner.
  • FOIA suffers setback in South Carolina at the hands of the legislature and Supreme Court, which recently ruled that public bodies don’t have to issue agendas for regularly scheduled meetings.
  •  Massachusetts SWAT team claims they’re immune from public records requests, ACLU sues.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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Must read FOI stories – 6/27/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • FOIA from the “budget” perspective answers the following questions: How much are we spending on FOIA oversight? How does that compare to the costs of litigation? How much does the government spend on FOIA administration overall.
  • The FBI’s 83-page guide to Twitter shorthand. FMTYEWTK (Far More Than You Ever Wanted To Know).
  • A federal judge ruled that the Freedom of Information Act trumps an Internal Revenue Service policy for handling data requests after an advocacy group, Public.Resource.Org, filed a lawsuit against the IRS to make Form 990 returns available in a format that can be read by computers so the public can more easily search them for critical information about non-profit finances, governance and programs.
  • An Oklahoma County judge ruled that Gov. Mary Fallin can lawfully withhold public documents — relating to a decision on Obamacare  — which are covered by a “deliberative process” privilege.
  • Tulsa World editorial calls for the legislature to strike down the “deliberative process” exemption. A judge recently ruled that Governor Mary Fallin was allowed to withhold 100 pages out of 51,000 concerning her state’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
  • The “FOIA Warriors” (Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro) are at it again and have filed a lawsuit against the CIA compelling the agency to release documents about its spying on Senate lawmakers who were tasked with investigating CIA torture.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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Must read FOI stories – 6/20/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • In the above link about the document seizure by the U.S. Marshals, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency motion to try and claw back those records, but the judge dismissed it.
  • FOIA request reveals brutal photos of seals, dolphins, whales, and other sea life that were caught in California commercial fishing boats that use drift gillnets — one mile-long mesh nets that are intended to catch swordfish.
  • The Kentucky Court of Appeals has affirmed a Circuit Court decision paving the way for public access to court records related to a public official’s job performance and the contentious relationship she had with the former president of a local community college.
  • An appeals court backs a man who made an anonymous public records request. The court ruled that the city of Greenacres, Fla., could not require the man to fill out a form before obtaining the documents.
  • St. Louis police records released per a judge’s order in public records lawsuit show how vice and other drug officers scalped the scalpersFifteen police officers were either suspended and demoted or otherwise disciplined for giving St. Louis Cardinals’ championship tickets seized from scalpers to friends and family.
  • The Miami Herald questions the Department of Children & Families’ “paperless” investigation into why there were originally no records — “no reports, memos, notes, emails or smoke signals” —  of the deaths of at least 30 children who were in DCF’s active case files.
  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons is being sued for FOIA violations by Prisology, a non-profit criminal justice reform organization. They claim that the FBOP has been non-compliant with the law, which has required for decades the Bureau post online substantial information about its day-to-day decision-making.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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Rise of the ‘FOIA terrorist’

Normally, I would just link to this type of piece in my weekly “must read” FOI story round up, but I wanted to draw extra attention to a recent article in Medium about Jason Leopold, the self-proclaimed “FOIA terrorist.”

The author, Jason Fagone, writes in his piece (one of the best long-form narrative stories I’ve read in a while) that he first learned of Jason Leopold through Twitter, as did I. Anyone following the #FOIA hashtag would be hard pressed to miss him. Many major stories broke as a direct result of his FOIA requests — The Abu Zubaydah Diaries.

… The military’s horrifyingly clinical description of how guards at Guantánamo are force-feeding prisoners on hunger strikes, and manuals describing how the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring Twitter for terrorist threats, and FBI records about the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings.

The story also recounts Leopold’s “dark past”: his struggles with substance abuse as well as his questionable ethics as a journalist at major news outlets. Having only been in the journalism world for three years, I was unaware of Leopold’s fall from journalism grace. But apparently after The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a story pointing out his mistakes in a major piece he published about Enron, Leopold thought his journalism career was over. Who wouldn’t?

One line that stuck out to me — when Leopold was explaining his questionable ethical decisions of bungling quotes, spelling mistakes, lying to sources about what was on and off the record:

“My whole thing was, I wanted to get at the truth by any means necessary,” he says.

I don’t know any journalists who couldn’t relate to that sentiment of wanting the truth that bad. Ethical decisions easily become clouded by those strong emotions. When you’re chasing down that big fish story, it’s hard not to get tunnel vision like Captain Ahab.

But he’s redeemed himself as far as I’m concerned.

Fagone writes, “Stories that praise Leopold’s FOIA scoops often refer to him not as a journalist but as an ‘activist.’”

I think that’s ridiculous. While the Freedom of Information Act is at the disposal of all people, no one utilizes it like a journalist (New hashtag? #FOIAlikeajournalist), or like Leopold does. And this is how he gets his stories now. No interviews. Just cold documents and hard facts.

Fagone writes:

The great thing about FOIA, for Leopold, was that it didn’t care about his past. It was just a law, an impersonal series of rules and procedures, inputs and outputs. There was hope in that.

Without giving away too many spoilers, one thing revealed is Leopold’s love for punk music, which makes sense. FOIA is the journalist’s version of a punk rock concert. The “in-your-face” attitude that comes with writing and submitting a FOIA request is akin to the thrill of being in a mosh pit, elbowing a drunk douchebag in the nose.

Above all, what I’m really happy to see is more FOIA advocacy. We could all benefit from having a Leopold in every newsroom.

On a final note, if Leopold reads this: Know that you’ve got at least one other FOIA soldier ready to do your bidding.

Mad props to Leopold, as well as Fagone and Medium, for publishing such an important story.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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Must read FOI stories – 6/13/14

Every week I’ll be doing a round up of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • A Circuit Court Judge will decide on whether text messages exchanged between government officials need to be released under FOIA in a lawsuit filed by PETA. The first defense the city of Norfolk, Virginia, offered was that its public employees don’t save their messages, then it said there was no way of retrieving them. Maybe their next excuse will be, “The dog ate ‘em.”
  • FOI advocacy groups want to close loop holes in FOIA regulations. Advocates say “agencies lack penalties for withholding information, overuse exemptions provided within FOIA and deal inconsistently and unfairly toward requesters.”
  • After 10,000 requests, MuckRock files FOIA lawsuit against the CIA. You can read all about in their editorial, “Why we’re suing the CIA.”
  • FOIA request filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals FBI’s Next Generation Identification facial recognition program will consist of a database of more than 52 million pictures. FBI Director says he doesn’t think the agency will spy on Americans with it. (Apparently he missed the memo from the NSA.)

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

 

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Local government emails at your fingertips, no need for public records request

This is HUGE: The City of Gainesville, Fla., has moved to make public officials’ emails available online — without the need to submit a FOIA request.

Anyone with a computer and Internet connection can scroll through any of the city commissioners’, or even the mayor’s, emails in a user-friendly database. You can search by date, specific mailboxes, or by specific words in either the subject line or body of the email. You can even export them into a ZIP file for further use.

Currently, there are over 10,000 emails searchable that date back to March. Of course, there will be some emails that won’t be available to the public that contain confidential information in accordance with state law. According to an interview between Clerk Commissioner Kurt Lannon and The Alligator, University of Florida’s student newspaper, that only applies to few emails. However, you can still view those emails by submitting a FOIA request.

I asked Lannon via email if the online email access of public officials was likely to help reduce the labor cost in fulfilling open records requests. “Yes, very much so,” he replied. The emails are automatically published to the website, except for the confidential emails that commissioners place in a “do not publish list.”

If I were a reporter in Gainesville, I would be checking the database every day for accidentally published “do not publish list” emails.


On a semi-related note, I suggested this idea of an email database to a reporter interviewing me about my open records lawsuit against the University System of Georgia. I filed suit against them last June for stonewalling and delay tactics in providing me emails. In court, their witnesses testified, and their lawyers argued, that this was the “largest request” for open records the university system had ever dealt with.

Their process for complying with an open records request for emails?

Printing out every email, reviewing and redacting them on paper, then scanning them back into a PDF file as JPEG image files (which effectively disabled the ability to perform keyword searches). This amounted to printing out a little over 12,000 pages to redact a handful of emails.

The reporter who interviewed me asked if I had a suggestion for how this process could be more efficient. Well, it seems Gainesville has come up with the solution. And they’re poised to save labor costs in doing so.

Government agencies subject to freedom of information laws need to catch up with the times. The technology is here and can make their lives easier. I would almost go a step further and say this technology needs to be legislated in other states’ open records laws.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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