This is a guest post by DC-based journalist Kathryn Foxhall.
After eight months the White House is not answering the complaints of journalism and other groups that the Obama Administration has entrenched the practice of prohibiting federal employees to speak to journalists without surveillance by public information offices, and that it often blocks them from communicating at all.
A year ago 53 national organizations sent a letter to Obama urging changes to these policies that constrict information flow. The groups also complained about agencies holding official briefings “on background,” restricting reporters from naming the officials who are talking.
In December, a delegation led by SPJ met with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and others on the issue. Despite a promise that officials would get back to SPJ, emails to Earnest and Eric Schultz, Principal Deputy Press Secretary, have gone unanswered.
“We don’t even know if President Obama has been advised of our complaint,” said Lynn Walsh, SPJ’s President-elect. “He’s spoken to press groups at least twice without mentioning it. It’s sad that after 53 organizations tell a White House that the silencing of millions of people is a hazard to the public, the Administration decides not to discuss it.”
The delegation to the White House included representatives from SPJ, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of News Editors. They told Earnest, among other things, that these restrictions often hide things from the press and that many times when the press doesn’t know something about federal agencies, the White House itself doesn’t know.
Earnest said he thought PIOs should be coordinating the conversations and that it is part of the journalism skill set to get a person to talk even with someone else in the room.
SPJ’s Walsh said, “We still have a special plea to President Obama not to leave these controls in place. The restrictions routinely withhold information from the public.”
SPJ has sponsored seven surveys that show these restrictions have become pervasive in federal offices, state and local governments, schools and universities and other entities in many areas of the nation.
The fact that blatant information control has become a cultural norm makes it all the more important for President Obama to use his moral suasion to speak out against it and begin the change starting at the federal level, Walsh said.
The need for that is illustrated in the recent Department of Justice report showing rampant civil rights violations by the Baltimore Police Department. Just five months ago SPJ-sponsored surveys found that over half reporters covering police say they can rarely or never interview police officers without involving a police department public information officer.
Police department PIOs in the surveys said they monitor press interviews with police officers for reasons such as, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.” Half of police PIOs said there were reporters or media outlets they would not allow to speak with officers due to “problems” with the reporters’ stories in the past.
“The Justice Department report shows there can be appalling things locked in an internal culture for many years. The SPJ survey shows police departments use PIOs to actively stop things from coming out. The same is true of federal agencies and other entities that prohibit or chill communication,” said Walsh. “We are asking President Obama whether he really wants institutions to hinder the press from understanding such critical information. Eight months later, we are still waiting for his answer.”
Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at email@example.com.
The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act was signed into law in 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice is now proposing how it will mandate reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies across the country.
If someone dies in police custody, the public has a right to know.
It may sound simple, but news outlets and media investigations have shown that is not always the case.
Why are news organizations keeping track and becoming the go-to place for this information and data? Because current reporting is not sufficient. According to an FBI report, in 2014, only 224 of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported around 444 fatal police shootings to the FBI.
It is unacceptable for the government to rely on media organizations to provide this information to the public. While the organizations that have stepped up and gathered the data are doing it well, what happens if the funding for these projects ends? It is also risky. The media is gathering data from what it has available to them, which is limited information compared to what the government has access to and could require law enforcement agencies to provide.
Having tried to use the data law enforcement agencies voluntarily report to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS, I know the frustration first hand. Sometimes you find data but sometimes you don’t. If you want to know how many people were shot and killed by law enforcement in a particular county, you may be forced to ask and then search through individual agencies records, compiling the data into your own database.
The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, DICRA, was supposed to help fix this reporting issue, among other things. The U.S. Department of Justice has now proposed how it will implement DICRA and is accepting public comment on the proposal until October 3. Click here to read more and how to comment.
The proposal has a number of weaknesses though and in a letter, the Society of Professional Journalists and 66 other organizations are asking the DOJ to strengthen its proposal for how law enforcement agencies will be required to report data detailing the number and how individuals die while in police custody.
Some of the concerns outlined in the letter include:
- A lack of consequences for not reporting accurate data, including detailing possible penalties for non-reporting or linking federal funding to reporting compliance
- The indication that BJS will rely on publicly available information “open-source review,” including news reports, for the data collection
- Lack of details on how federal law enforcement agencies will comply with DICRA
As mentioned above, some news organizations have made a commitment to tracking how many people are being shot and killed by law enforcement. While the work being done by these news organizations is detailed and well-researched, is this enough?
Shouldn’t the media and in turn the public be able to easily obtain data from the government about the individuals being killed by law enforcement, public employees, with salaries funded by tax dollars? Not to mention the fact that close to $4 billion in federal grants is awarded annually to local and state law enforcement agencies. Doesn’t this make what the agencies do, also the public’s businesses?
I think so and so does SPJ.
Do you agree? Let the DOJ know. Below are some ways to share your thoughts on social media.
- Here are some deficiencies in @TheJusticeDept’s proposal for collecting data on deaths in police custody: http://bit.ly/2c0oqWo @spj_tweets
- .@TheJusticeDept has a proposal for collecting data on deaths in police custody. Here’s why it must be strengthened: http://bit.ly/2c0oqWo
- Gov. should provide journalists w/ #transparent data about deaths in police custody not other way around: http://bit.ly/2c0oqWo @spj_tweets
Lynn Walsh is the current President-Elect for SPJ. She manages and leads the #NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.
“This isn’t about journalists against the government. This is about citizens. Journalists are just the proxies,” David Cuillier, past president of the Society of Professional Journalists and member of the SPJ FOI Committee, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Cuillier explained that while the signing of the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act on June 30, the eve of FOIA’s 50th anniversary, is an extraordinary accomplishment, more work must be done to continue improving the people’s access to their government.
Below is a transcript and video replay (skip to 17:00 in the video) of Cuillier’s full testimony on “FOIA at Fifty: Has the Sunshine Law’s Promise Been Fulfilled?” before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, July 12, 2016:
Chairman Grassley and Members of the Committee on the Judiciary,
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), founded in 1909 as the largest and most broad-based journalism organization in the nation, currently representing 7,000 members. I also come to you in my capacity as a researcher and teacher of freedom of information at the University of Arizona School of Journalism.
Kudos to all of you for your continued work to improve the people’s access to their government. I have been impressed with your work, Mr. Chairman, as well as the dedication of Senators Leahy and Cornyn, to continue to improve Americans’ ability to see what their government is up to.
Honestly, I worry for the time when you all decide to retire or move onto other careers. We need strong, principled leaders who believe in the fundamental principles intended in our nation’s founding. The 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, signed into law June 30 on the eve of FOIA’s 50th anniversary, is an extraordinary accomplishment, demonstrating that people from different perspectives and political persuasions can come together collaboratively to serve the best interest of all citizens. Because of the amendments, we now have a law that codifies the presumption that government records are public unless disclosure would cause foreseeable harm. The Office of Government Information Services now can be more frank and unfettered in its advice to Congress about how to improve the administration of FOIA. Federal agencies are now instructed to provide the public a single online portal to streamline requests. These and other provisions will help citizens and journalists better understand their government, and ultimately improve our society.
Despite these advances, though, I must say that much, much more work is needed to create a law and “sunlight system” as originally intended when FOIA was first enacted in 1966. The law is broken. FOIA has been co-opted as a tool of secrecy, not transparency. I hear from journalists and citizens nearly daily about their problems in maneuvering through an intimidating system fraught with delays, confusion, and excessive fees that often results in no records or pages delivered in unusable formats blacked out entirely or in part. As a result, information that can shed light on unsafe drinking water, inappropriate expenditures, and inefficient government operations remains hidden from the public. I am not exaggerating when I say we have reached a tipping point – a crisis situation – when it comes to freedom of information in this country. We are frogs in the kettle of slowly heating water, and if we don’t jump out now we will find ourselves in a sticky and murky stew.
The research is clear: Requesters are having a harder time than ever in getting the information they need. While agencies are becoming more efficient in processing 700,000 requests a year, denials and the use of exemptions to hide information are rising. An Associated Press analysis this year of FOIA request data showed that the Obama administration has set a record in the rate requesters are denied information or told that it doesn’t exist – 77 percent of the time. In 2012, agencies’ use of exemptions to deny requests increased 22 percent over the previous year. Comparing the last three years of the George Bush administration to the first three years of the Obama administration, the percentage of denials among most agencies has increased. The culture of secrecy grows beyond FOIA as journalists struggle to receive basic information about schools because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and through excessive message management through public information officers.
Journalists have become so frustrated that last year the Society of Professional Journalists and more than 50 other journalism organizations sent a letter to the White House urging a stop to the excessive secrecy. A delegation met with White House staff last December to discuss the problem but has yet to see any action.
Globally, as well, the United States is falling behind. Ratings of FOIA laws in the 105 nations that have them indicate that U.S. FOIA ranks 46th in its strength, behind such countries as Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. Even Mexico’s FOIA ranks better than ours, at ninth place. Other countries have incorporated significant elements into their laws. For example, a dozen nations, such as Liberia, have declared the right to know as a constitutional right, and some international courts have even deemed it a basic human right. In some nations, such as South Korea, FOIA applies to the judicial and legislative branches. South Africa, Brazil, and Estonia require that government contractors doing the government’s business adhere to FOIA. China provides reduced or waived fees for those who demonstrate financial hardship, and officials are required to assist the illiterate and disabled in their requests. Romania requires agencies to respond within five business days, and India assesses monetary penalties against agencies that do not comply with the law. Countries such as Ethiopia provide a public records ombudsman with the authority to force agencies to disclose records, saving citizens the time and expense of litigation. Colombia requires agencies to provide records in different languages and the state of Sinaloa in Mexico requires freedom of information to be taught in the schools.
How could these nations pass us by? It makes sense, really, since the majority of other FOIA laws have been passed in just the past 15 years. Technically, Congress enacted FOIA as an amendment to the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946, which was created to deal with the growing federal bureaucracy. Amendments through the years tinkered with FOIA, but as we know, significant leaps do not occur often in our political system. Think of U.S. FOIA as a 1966 Ford Mustang. A revered classic. A 2016 Hyundai, however, has better mileage, safety features, sound, reliability, and air conditioning. If we look past sentimentality and focus on efficiency, then perhaps it is time to garage the Mustang, trade up, or at least give it a complete overhaul.
What we have created over the past 50 years in our nation’s governments – at all levels – is a growing culture of secrecy. It infuses our bureaucracies, and is difficult for any one president to change. But Congress can take actions to turn the tide, to set us back on track and create a culture of openness and accountability:
- Require FOIA training of all employees. Many of the complaints I receive from journalists is that they encounter government employees who are ignorant of the law, or don’t see the reasoning behind the law – they see it as a hindrance to their day-today work, which is likely true in many cases. The Office of Government Information Services has provided training for hundreds of FOIA officers. Funding should be provided to expand training to not just FOIA officers, but all government employees.
- Add enforcement mechanisms. Expecting a grandma from Topeka to hire an attorney to sue an agency is unreasonable. The deck is stacked against the citizen, and journalism organizations are less likely to sue for public records than they were in the past.9 Some states provide penalties for agencies or officials who fail to follow public record laws, such as suspension or removal, or sometimes even criminal repercussions. Those provisions are rarely enforced, but send a strong message. At minimum, courts should be required to assess reasonable attorney fees for plaintiffs that prevail and punitive fines against agencies found to be arbitrary and capricious. States that have such provisions in their laws are some of the most transparent. Perhaps OGIS should be given authority to force disclosure, or delegate that power to an independent entity that could act based on OGIS investigations (good cop, bad cop). Other enforcement models at the state level, such as in Connecticut, or international stage should be examined.
- Streamline the system. As Professor Margaret Kwoka points out in her testimony, the bulk of FOIA requests are submitted by commercial interests out to make a buck, not necessarily to help the public find out what its government is up to. Those requests, subsidized by taxpayers through millions of dollars, create backlogs that impede requests from citizens and journalists. Commercial requesters, which, by the way, have lobbied since the 1950s for secrecy exemptions, should be assessed higher fees to recoup the costs and create a more efficient system for requesters working in the public interest.
- Make electronic proactive disclosure work. Despite the passage of the e-FOIA 20 years ago, the transition to proactive digital disclosure has been slow. Additional staff and resources are needed to create a single FOIA online portal and develop digital systems that automatically post documents easy for the average person to find and retrieve. Congress has a long tradition of requiring the publication and distribution of government documents for free, such as creation of the federal depository library system. Freedom of information isn’t free; It’s the cost of doing business for a democracy.
- Reign in statutory exemptions. Agencies frequently use statutory exemptions to end-run FOIA, making them one of the most frustrating parts of the process. Congress should restrain the abuse of Exemption b(3) and continue to reign in abuses of exemption 5. The privacy exemption, as well, has been twisted, going far beyond its intent. Over-classification is out of control. Congress should clarify the limitations for the use of these secrecy tactics.
These are just some of the ways, along with the excellent recommendations of the other panelists, that Congress can align FOIA with its original intent and begin creating a culture of transparency, not secrecy, throughout out government. Perhaps looking at the best elements of other FOIA laws – in other nations and in the states – we can find new ways of enhancing freedom of information. Or better yet, go beyond what exists today and think of tomorrow, of the amazing power and potential that technology offers to enlighten the population.
While journalists are extremely frustrated and see first-hand how FOIA’s flaws are preventing important information from being released, I want to emphasize that this is not a press issue. Journalists are merely proxies for the public. This is about our citizenry and the very nature of what we aspire to be as a nation. If we do not act now then I fear the trend toward secrecy will continue, and this country will look very different in the next 50 years.
Thank you for your dedication to reinvigorating FOIA and the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to answering your questions.
David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director and associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism in Tucson, Arizona, where he teaches and researches public affairs reporting, data journalism, and access to government information. Before entering academia in 2006, he was a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Pacific Northwest, where he covered local, state, and federal government. For the past 10 years he has been a newsroom trainer for the Society of Professional Journalists, the largest and most broad-based journalism organization in the nation, and he served as SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee chair 2007-11 and as its president 2013-14. He currently serves on the SPJ FOI Committee, as well as the board of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. He is co-author with Charles N. Davis of The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records and Transparency 2.0: Digital Data and Privacy in a Wired World, as well as numerous peer-reviewed research journal articles regarding the state of government transparency, public attitudes toward freedom of information, and the psychological aspects of accessing public records.
Agencies in Florida refusing to release documents associated with the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, should reconsider.
Media agencies have been requesting many documents under the Florida “Sunshine” law including 911 calls, the shooters employment documents when he served as a corrections officer and information about the shooters security guard license. The state has denied these requests saying they are part of an active investigation.
According to an article in the Miami Herald, a representative in the Florida Attorney Generals Office has said the documents should be released. Read the full article here.
Having worked in Florida and having used the state public record laws often, this is not the norm. These types of records are permitted to be released and in my experience were released regularly. The fact that state agencies are deciding now, after our country experienced its worst mass shooting to date, to decide not to release these records, that belong to the public, is disappointing.
Barbara Petersen with the Florida First Amendment Foundation said, “The records requested by the media are not active criminal investigative records; rather, these are records created before the investigation into the horrific events of Sunday morning in Orlando. In fact, many of the requested records were created years earlier and, once released, will, hopefully provide some understanding of the possible motivation of Omar Mateen, the shooter, and the response by law enforcement agencies. Many of the agencies are responding to such requests by saying, ask the FBI. The FBI does not have the authority to hijack Florida’s constitution.”
According to the Miami Herald, an attorney for the media organizations has written a letter to the City of Orlando, asking for the records to be released.
SPJ supports transparency and access to public records. I am disappointed to see these records withheld and ask the City of Orlando and other agencies to reconsider their decision to keep the public in the dark.
A journalist in Louisiana was taken away in handcuffs Wednesday while inquiring about the status of a state public records request submitted to the Town of White Castle in Louisiana.
Watch the video here.
The station has been asking questions about a salary increase the Mayor of White Castle, Jermarr Williams appears to have received. According to WBRZ reports, Williams was earning $20.31 an hour but in November 2015, records show he was earning $24.44.
Attempting to find out if the local city council voted to increase Williams’ salary and wanting information about mileage reimbursements, Nakamoto submitted a request under the Louisiana Public Records Act.
The Act, allows any member of the public to view public records unless the records are determined to be exempt.
While inquiring about the missing portion of his request Wednesday, a security guard asks the journalist to leave. Nakamoto stresses, he is inside a public building, on public property and will not step outside. Next, the security guard cuffs Nakamoto and takes him to the police department. Nakamoto was charged with a misdemeanor.
Thursday, WBRZ reported, the final portion of the public records request was fulfilled. More on that here.
An email to Williams was not immediately answered.
Prohibiting the public and journalists from obtaining information that they are entitled to is unacceptable. To take it a step further and arrest someone, who is inquiring and asking questions about a request is ridiculous. As we know obtaining information is sometimes hard enough, but to worry that you might be charged or arrested while inquiring about a request is annoying and unnecessary.
This information belongs to the public and should be handed over easily.
SPJ does not support or encourage the arrest of journalists and members of the public, who are trying to obtain public information. SPJ also does not support or encourage public agencies and individuals who fight the release of public information.
Lynn Walsh is President-Elect of SPJ. She also serves on the FOI and Ethics committees. She is currently leading the investigative team at KNSD in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh or contact her via email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.
Troubling legislation in four states would seriously undermine the public’s right to know and ability to hold government officials accountable.
Two of the bills — in Indiana and New Jersey — would restrict access to police body camera footage. Legislation in Florida would make it more difficult for citizens and the press to challenge improper government secrecy. And Massachusetts lawmakers are set to vote on a measure that, while aimed at improving the state’s public records law, could do the opposite.
Open government groups have raised concerns about each of the proposals.
Indiana: Police video recordings
The Indiana House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would impose numerous roadblocks on journalists and others who want to obtain police body camera and dash camera videos.
Police already have wide discretion to deny release of such recordings — decisions that can be difficult if not possible to challenge, according to the Hoosier State Press Association.
Under the legislation, House Bill 1019, only two classes of people would be entitled to inspect police video recordings: (1) those depicted in the videos, and (2) when a video shows the interior of a property, the owner of that property. Neither would be allowed to make copies of the recordings, but rather would only have a right to view them.
Anyone else, including reporters, would have to file a lawsuit to obtain a police video recording. Requesters would have to show that disclosure is in the public interest, does not create “significant risk of substantial harm to any person or to the general public,” and will not prejudice civil or criminal proceedings.
If a court orders release of a recording, police would be required to obscure a litany of depictions, such as acts of severe violence, anyone who is under 18 years of age, and crime victims and witnesses.
Requesters who prevail would not be entitled to get their attorney’s fees reimbursed.
The bill could also hamper newsgathering by requiring record requesters to know particular details of every video being requested. Requesters would have to provide the date and time of the activity that was recorded, where that activity occurred, and the name of at least one person who was “directly involved” in the activity but not in a law enforcement capacity.
The Hoosier State Press Association, Indiana Broadcasters Association and Radio Television Digital News Association are opposed to the legislation.
It now goes before the state Senate.
New Jersey: Police body camera footage, 911 records
Similarly, a New Jersey legislator has introduced a bill that would entirely exempt release of police body camera footage from the state’s public records law, along with audio recordings and transcripts of 911 calls.
The bill’s author, state Sen. Paul Sarlo, has said he might amend the legislation to allow for disclosure when police are involved in altercations.
Sarlo represents several municipalities that are being sued by the press for access to records about a 2014 incident in which police shot and killed a 23-year-old black man.
Florida: Reimbursement of attorney’s fees
A Florida bill would make it more difficult for the public and press to enforce the state’s public records law.
The legislation “would remove the requirement that government officials who intentionally violate the state’s public records law pay attorney’s fees when citizens take them to court,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Instead, the bill would make reimbursement discretionary, letting judges decide when plaintiffs who prevail in public-records lawsuits should have their attorney’s fees covered.
Many states have cost-shifting provisions similar to Florida’s current version, which often are the only way plaintiffs can afford to go to court.
The legislation advanced Tuesday in a state Senate committee; a state House of Representatives committee already signed off on a companion bill.
Massachusetts: Public records law reform needs reform
The Massachusetts Senate is expected to vote within the next few weeks on legislation aimed at improving the state’s public records law, but the proposal has numerous problems, according to Danielle McLean, president of SPJ New England and a member of SPJ’s national Freedom of Information Committee.
The measure, along with a companion House bill that passed late last year, seeks to limit some fees assessed to record requesters and provides for the possibility that plaintiffs who prevail in public-records lawsuits can have their legal expenses reimbursed. But as McLean points out, the legislation has serious problems:
- It welcomes delays. The legislation would allow the government to wait more than two months to respond to record requests. Currently, officials are supposed to respond within 10 days, but the bill would expand that deadline to 60 days for state government and 75 days for local governments.
- It restricts enforcement. The bill would require that public-records lawsuits be filed within 30 days of a denial being issued, a fairly narrow window to appeal. The legislation also does not mandate that plaintiffs who prevail will get their legal fees reimbursed; that decision would instead be up to a judge.
- It fails to address gaping holes. The bill also does nothing to make the public records law apply to the governor, state Legislature or state court system, although it does authorize a study to explore that possibility.
McLean and other freedom of information advocates held a rally last week on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, calling on senators to amend the law so it requires faster responses to public records requests, provides stronger enforcement mechanisms and reduces fees charged to requesters.
Approximately 25 to 30 people participated in the rally, including journalists, activists and college students.
“During the rally, we had some awesome dialogue, made a lot of noise, and gained some good momentum for the cause,” McLean said.
Jonathan Anderson is chair of the Society’s Freedom of Information Committee.
Over the past year, Massachusetts State Police informed a local attorney it would cost him $2.7 million for public records related to data about the accuracy of breathalyzer tests. And the Bay State Examiner was told by the department they would have to pay a $710.50 fee to get a public records fee estimate, after the news site requested copies of internal affairs files for 49 state troopers.
Massachusetts: Once considered the birthplace of American civil discourse, its government over the past four decades has transformed the state into quite literally, one of the most secretive in the country- recently earning an F grade for public access to information by the Center for Public Integrity.
Two weeks ago, a bill passed through the state’s House of Representatives that would improve the situation and be the first update to the state’s public records laws in 40 years. And while there is hope the bill will be strengthened when it goes before the Senate next month, the current version does not address many of the deficiencies of the state’s broken system and in some cases, makes it worse.
A broken system
Government agencies in the state have the ability to charge reporters, advocates, and citizens massive fees to administer public records requests, which they say, covers the labor and printing costs of fulfilling requests. Often they charge high costs to have lawyers review and make redactions on each requested page and make printed copies of the records, even when the documents are available electronically.
Challenging high fees or public records denials in court can be expensive and can often take years. And filing an appeal with the Secretary of State is largely ineffective, allowing government agencies to push the boundaries when deciding what records should be public and how much it should cost to administer them.
Boston Globe Spotlight Team Investigative Reporter Todd Wallack said he is regularly charged tens- of- thousands or hundreds-of-thousands by Massachusetts government agencies for public records, which many states provide for free. On several occasions he has been flat-out denied records.
“It is all too common when dealing with particular agencies and police departments [in Massachusetts] where I get really high fee estimates that stretch the imagination and look like alternative ways to deny a request,” Wallack said.
In Sept. 2014, Massachusetts State Police said a blogger could not obtain records relating to a 63-year-old murder case because it was still under investigation, even though the suspect was long dead.
And last spring, Wallack filed FOIA requests to the state police and the Middlesex DA’s office asking for the state police report for the 2013 Watertown shootout involving the Boston Marathon bombers. In response, the Middlesex District Attorney’s office held a press conference about the report and posted it on their website. But days later, the state police sent him a letter denying his request.
“How much credibility do they have when that same report is on the web and the DA sent out a press release?” Wallack asked.
The state’s public records law doesn’t apply to the governor’s office, the judicial branch, or the state legislature at all, allowing them to operate in the dark. And the state agencies that are subject to the laws, sometimes take months or years to administer a request.
Recently, the Massachusetts State Police was fittingly named the most secretive publicly-funded government agency in the country, winning the Investigative Reporters and Editor’s prestigious 2015 Golden Padlock Award.
But the secrecy has expanded to police departments across the Commonwealth.
Last spring, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin made a series of rulings that gave police greater power to withhold and censor arrest records. In 2014, former Governor Deval Patrick signed a law that prohibits police departments from releasing reports or logs with information relating to domestic violence and sex crimes.
And NEMLEC, a law enforcement council that coordinates regional police activity and has a SWAT team that deploys armed vehicles and conducts forced-entry raids on Massachusetts homes, have continuously dodged FOIA requests.
Lack of enforcement
Over the years, it has been difficult for journalists to fight public record denials or exuberant charges.
In fact, the state’s Attorney General’s office finally began enforcing the law for the first time in five years last June, months after Maura Healey was elected to the AG post. And in that one case, the AG’s office ordered the Fall River Police Department to lower the fee amount for a request. But the police department was never prosecuted.
Without the state’s help in enforcing the laws, reporters, citizens and advocates have been forced to go to the courts for help, which can be an expensive and time-consuming route.
Massachusetts is one of just three states that does not allow people who were found wrongly denied access to public records to recover attorneys’ fees. And such suits often take years before they are ever heard, Wallack said.
“[Government agencies] recognize if journalists are denied information for a long period of time, that means a story might not get written at all or it may no longer be timely,” Wallack said.
The fight for public records reform
While there is a major push by state lawmakers and advocacy groups to try and open up some of the blinders, such efforts have been met with large resistance from the lobbyist group the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns across the state.
Two weeks ago, the state’s House of Representatives unanimously approved a public records reform bill that would reduce public records administration costs, require agencies and municipalities to assign a public access officer to handle requests, and allows judges to reimburse attorney fees and litigation costs to requesters who were unlawfully denied public records.
The bill was introduced by state Representative Peter V. Kocot and backed by a coalition of 40 watchdog, civil rights and journalism organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts and SPJ’s New England pro chapter.
But, as DigBoston thoroughly reports, the bill doesn’t nearly go far enough and in some cases, makes the situation worse.
For instance, the existing law gives agencies 10 days to respond to FOIA requests while the new bill gives state agencies up to 60 days and local agencies up to 75 days, with the option to apply for an extension with the supervisor of records. However, Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Pam Wilmot said the courts have ruled that the 10 days isn’t really a hard deadline for agencies to respond to requests.
“Even though there is something on paper, there is no effect,” Wilmot said.
Another issue DigBoston points out, is judges would have discretion over whether to award attorneys’ fees to people who successfully sued agencies over wrongfully denied records. Wilmot said judges would need to produce a written explanation as to why they are withholding attorney’s fees, which she suspects they would prefer not to do unless there was a good reason for it.
And the bill makes it harder to simply file a lawsuit for denied public records requests. As it stands, requesters have an indefinite amount of time to file a lawsuit, whereas in the bill, they would have only 30 days.
The bill would also not make the public records law apply to the governor’s office, the judicial branch, or the state legislature. But, a late amendment to the bill was added that would create a study commission to look at the future inclusion of the three bodies and other ways the legislature can be more open and transparent.
The road ahead
Wilmot said the bill is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. She said the Senate is expected to take up the bill in January, which, as a whole is typically more friendly to public records reform. She said she is optimistic the Senate will strengthen the bill.
“The Senate has been consistently more pro-reform in a number of areas and more willing to push the envelope when it comes to transparency,” Wilmot said. “Will it be everything we want? Probably not. But I think it may be close.”
Once approved, the bill would go to a conference committee, which would likely pass some kind of compromise between the Senate and the House bills, she said.
As for Governor Charlie Baker, who would need to sign-off on the final bill, he set public records procedures for state agencies in July, in an effort to improve transparency. But Wilmot said his office is concerned about having strict cost controls for municipalities when administering public records due to existing laws barring the state from mandating municipalities to spend more money without giving them more money.
It’s encouraging that lawmakers are finally taking public records reform seriously. But real reform that addresses all of the issues is needed, not something that gives public officials avenues to avoid having to turn over records that belong to the taxpayers and hardworking journalists. Massachusetts has been governed in the dark for too long. It’s time to pull up the shades and bring in some sunshine.
Danielle McLean is a member of the Society’s Freedom of Information Committee and President of Society’s New England Pro Chapter.
Sept. 28 is kind of a big day for the concept of democracy.
Yes, Congress submitted the U.S. Constitution on this day in 1787 to states for ratification. We all know how that turned out.
But Sept. 28 also is important for another reason: It’s International Right to Know Day, a worldwide event aimed at promoting open government laws and highlighting why they matter. The day commemorates the anniversary of when freedom of information groups from around the globe formed an international coalition called the FOI Advocates Network, of which SPJ is a member.
The network turns 13 years old this year.
Despite that impressive achievement — and unlike ratification of the Constitution, a historical event — the story of the public’s right to know is still being written: Laws governing disclosure of government-held information change and evolve, and there is a constant tug of war over access to public records and proceedings at all levels of government.
Journalists play a key role in that story — we have an ethical duty to do so! — and International Right to Know Day is another opportunity to make a difference.
- On Monday, Sept. 28, journalists and FOI advocates can commemorate International Right to Know Day by showcasing the impact of open government laws on social media.
- To that end, journalists should highlight stories made possible because of open government laws. Did a public records request reveal important information for a story? Did that story effect some kind of change? Did you successfully challenge improper government secrecy? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you have a social media post to share!
- Use hash tags #FOISuccess and #IRTKD2015. On Twitter, the handle @FOIAnet also can be referenced.
- Post stories on the FOIAnet Facebook, too.
An archaic law prohibiting criminal defamation has been repealed in Georgia, writes Matt J. Duffy, an SPJ Georgia member, and member of SPJGA First Amendment, FOI and Ethics Committee. Georgia removed its criminal libel statutes last month, and although the statute hadn’t been used in decades, this protects journalists from being arrested for exercising free speech. Read more here.
Abrahm Lustgarten, an energy and environment reporter at ProPublica, had a seat right on the battle lines of the Western Water Wars. Having previously lived in a small town on the Colorado River, he developed an awareness of the water scarcity problem, especially as the drought got worse. After relocating to California, Lustgarten sought to bring his experience and long-standing interest in the topic to an investigative piece focused on the importance of water in the West.
His reporting led to a nine-part series called “Killing the Colorado,” which ran from May to July this year, and focused not only on the Centennial state but on issues in Arizona, Nevada (Las Vegas), and California. Lustgarten delved into federal subsidies for cotton under the Farm Bill, pollution problems at the Navajo Generation Station, and a controversial “use it or lose it” law further enabling the misuse of water. Reporting the story was not easy; Lustgarten spent more than a year and a half collecting and requesting information, and learning an extensive amount about the history and laws surrounding water crises. “It was an enormous amount of information, like getting an informal master’s degree,” Lustgarten said.
The story began with “Holy Crop,” an in-depth look into how federal subsidies of cotton under the Farm Bill leads to water shortages, as the crop needs billions of gallons of water to be grown. Lustgarten did “everything under the sun” to obtain public records for the piece, he said, drawing upon court documents, litigation cases, land ownership deeds, peer review studies, and economic reporting under the Farm Bill. It was the latter documents that posed the greatest challenge, Lustgarten said. He filed a FOIA request to solicit records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Farm Bill and subsidy program, and waited more than 8 months to receive the information – and incomplete information at that.
The USDA doesn’t release information that the public actually wants to know, said Lustgarten. His reports came back with generalized info about the number of subsidies per town and the amounts granted, but no information about the individuals who received the money. It was, all-in-all, a FOIA failure, according to Lustgarten. The most recent Farm Bill allowed USDA to withhold information, and there wasn’t enough time to take them to court to get the necessary documents. It’s not an unprecedented response from the USDA: the Farm Service Agency denies more FOIA requests than any other segment of the department (about ½ of the department’s total denials), basing most on confidential, personnel, and medical records exemptions.
Lustgarten also reached out to agencies on the state level, but ran into similar issues. In California, a state law is designed to protect utility customers, by keeping the identity of water users secret and collection info on irrigation water districts only, not the users (i.e. people and companies) who get the water. But the documents were not where the real story was. In this case, going into the field and engaging in face-to-face interviews proved most important.
“These stories are, in the end, analysis,” Lustgarten said. “You’ve got to do the deep reporting, and understand the issue or else your story will just be a superficial version. Ask yourself what you personally think about the story, and use that analysis rather than just direct information you are told.” For example, Lustgarten said, once he found out how water law tells farmers to use their resources in a way that is not always sustainable, he exercised his own judgement. He returned to his sources, and asked them, “If the law allowed you to use less water, would you?” Their affirmative answers added yet another layer of depth to the story.
The problem with analysis is that the readers don’t always agree with the journalist’s point of view. For the most part, Lustgarten’s story received great public feedback, with readers welcoming a new and different perspective and a solutions-based story. However, other readers found fault with Lustgarten’s analysis, some arguing cotton is less water-intensive than Lustgarten claimed, others pointing out discrepancies between the Arizona and California laws discussed in the story.
However, Lustgarten’s story did call attention to a growing problem, and invite discussion and debate in the community. “Nothing is more important than water,” Lustgarten said, and finally this underappreciated resource, vital for the economy, environment, and human health, was brought into the spotlight. Here are couple methods Lustgarten used to make his story stand out.
Lustgarten drew on the introduction and implementation of the Farm Bill over time to explain his story, and touched upon the history of the region’s 15-year-drought and environmental dry spell. He researched early Arizona township organizations and supply and demand of resources during wartime, alluding to Civil War practices and an 150-year-old report to Congress by John Wesley Powell.
Lustgarten worked with over twenty groups, including state and federal agencies; from the California and Arizona Departments of Water Resources to the National Weather Service and Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, the information took up to three years to obtain. The main story these documents told were about money, Lustgarten said, the irony of the government charging individuals and companies less to use more water. To figure out what documents are best suited for the story, Lustgarten said he relied on government experts or lawyers, asking them what kind of state and federal documents were kept related to his topic of interest, and what the specific title and code of the document would be. He talked with FOIA officers at EPA and USDA, trying to identify which records would be most beneficial.
Lustgarten can’t stress the human factor of investigative reporting enough. His one-on-one encounters with farmers, government officials (like the “Water Witch” of Las Vegas) and other members of the community assign a human face to the numbers behind the documents. And the natural landscape has a kind of emotional quality as well, as photographer Michael Friberg brought out in a series “A Wonder in Decline: The Disappearing Lake Powell in Pictures.”
The short story
ProPublica compiled the main points from the series into a notecard-guide, shareable via social media. The shortened stories are posed as a solution-based Q&A, identifying the problems and using graphics, maps, and charts to illustrate statistics. The notecards are an informative way to draw in an audience with perhaps less time or knowledge to dedicate to the full series. Instead of cutting the reporting short, the “Need to Know” article caters to a larger audience who might not have followed the entire series. Most importantly, the notecards point to various solutions for the readers to deliberate amongst each other. And that is how these stories invite and inspire change.