Archive for the ‘First Amendment’ Category


18 Ways to Fight Censoring PIOs

Over the last 20 years there’s been a surge in government offices and other employers prohibiting staff from ever speaking with journalists unless they first ask the public information officer or some person in management.

In addition to the surveillance factor that silences employees about most anything the bosses would not like, the policies often cause massive delays and officials frequently deny interview requests outright. Or they sit in on interviews or do other obstruction or manipulation.

SPJ has a good picture of this now. Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State University has now done seven surveys on behalf of the organization and they show a national culture interlaced with censorship. Most reporters who cover federal agencies say they must get PIO approval to interview agency employees and most say the public is not getting all the information it needs because of such restrictions. Forty percent of public agency PIOs say they block specific reporters because of “problems with their stories in the past.”

State and local, science and education reporters confirm the same kinds of problems.

Particularly chilling, most police reporters say they can rarely or never talk to a police officer without involving a PIO. And police PIOs say they must monitor interviews for reasons like, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”

What should journalists do?

Most importantly, go after the “Censorship by PIO” like the deep corruption it is. Any entity that prohibits people from communicating except when they notify the authorities is keeping information from the public. And that’s a misallocation of resources as serious as any other we investigate. It also creates an opacity that’s fertile ground for malfeasance and an unconscionable conflict of interest allowing officials to strangle investigation of their actions.

Investigate how long has it been happening in your area. Why do officials feel they have a right to do this? How often are delays and blockages happening? What about the fact that many times staff have tipped reporters off to serious issues? Are officials trying to stop that process?

Home in on one incident or series of nonresponses. Who in the food chain said a staff person could not speak? What was withheld? What were the power plays and the political motivations?

Ask why the public should trust official reasoning like, “We have to coordinate the story. We just want to know what is going on. We need to tell reporters the right person to talk to.”

Explain it to the public. It’s not “inside baseball.” It’s the public’s business. If you don’t feel you can write an unbiased news story, make it an editorial.

Explain it when it happens. Don’t just say, “XYZ agency declined to make an expert available.”  Say, “XYZ agency prohibits all employees from speaking to the press about anything unless they notify the press office. It often denies such interviews. The PIO did not explain why experts could not speak to this reporter.”

Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and journalism groups on resistance. When agencies hold press conferences or briefings have reporters take turns asking why journalists can’t speak to people in the agency without the PIO guards. And report the response.

Don’t kid yourself that your great reporting skills get you all you need to know. We have no right to take that risk. Millions of employees have been told to shut up. So chances are good some silenced staff people—including those you talked to after going through the PIO—could blow your award-winning story out of the water. Or educate you about the mind-blowing stories you don’t have a clue about.

Remember that journalists’ acquiescence to “Censorship by PIO” is just as dangerous as the worst thing it will keep covered up. For instance, the press did hundreds of stories that CDC and FDA handed out over the last couple of years. But with PIO guards on us, we didn’t get—and probably could never have gotten—the fact that there were not strong, consensus guidelines for Ebola containment in place and there was a storeroom for pathogens that hadn’t been inventoried in decades (the one that contained smallpox).

Remember that likely the biggest reason we can’t do anything about these restraints is that journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

In the meantime, as we fight the policies, we are obliged to use all techniques possible to undermine the blockages. For that:

Rely on PIOs as little as possible. Get away from PIO and agency oversight whenever you can, including during routine reporting. Many people will say something different away from the guards. Find out for yourself who you should talk to. Analyze staff listings, hearings and meeting agendas. Ask outside source people who in the agency works on the issue. Use search engines and literature searches to pinpoint who in an agency spoke or wrote on an issue. Then study the hierarchy to understand their position in it and other people close to them you might talk to.

Contact people directly and tell them you want to talk to them, even if you have to contact the PIO also. Sometimes the internal expert will advocate for the interview.

Interview outside sources and then contact the inside source persons in hopes they will want to respond to what you know.

When you talk to a source person, even if the PIO is listening in, ask who outside the agency is working on the issue. The source person may mention an interest group or person that the agency is actually talking to.

Consider holding the source person, particularly if they are an official, responsible: “Mr. Doe did not respond to attempts to contact him.” They should be responsive even if agency cultural norm is to hide behind the PIO.

Keep a running descriptive list of responses and nonresponses and hold agency leadership and elected officials accountable. Consider keeping the list on the web.

At least occasionally, do a series of incessant follow-ups. I contacted CDC about newborn circumcision 20 times as PIOs repeatedly refused to let me talk to their experts. Then I wrote a press release about it. Let your audience know what subjects the agencies are blocking information on.

Go to obscure meetings or sessions. Speakers sometimes forget reporters could be there. If possible, sign in as a member of the public, not as press.

Regularly give agency staff every possible way to contact you.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the IRE Journal.


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 kfoxhall@verizon.net.

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If You Sue Trump, This DC Lawyer Will Help You For Free

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Mark Zaid wants to help journalists file a national security-centered FOIA request against Trump so much he’ll do it for free:

According to Zaid’s site, he’s an expert in defending “former, current, and prospective civilian federal employees, defense contractors, members of our active duty and reserve military, and journalists, particularly when they are threatened by the overshadowing spectre of national security.”

Of course, consider the risk. At this point, if you sue Trump, he may sue you back (and/or stick his tongue out at you)—or throw you in jail.

Photo by Michael Vadon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Hear It from a Journocriminal

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Let’s turn our attention to a real Georgia journalist who went to real jail for making a real public records request—really.

From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s July 1 piece:

A North Georgia newspaper publisher was indicted on a felony charge and jailed overnight last week – for filing an open-records request.

Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.

Here’s AJC’s nut graph:

Thomason was charged June 24 with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks “cashed illegally.” Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information on the checks.


Thomason Speaks at SPJ Region 3’s MediAtlanta

Thomason told his story at Region 3’s annual conference, dubbed MediAtlanta, on Oct. 29—you can watch the whole thing above. He’s in the center, to his left SPJ Georgia president-elect Dan Whisenhunt, to his right Kennesaw State University Professor and FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson. Video by Nydia Tisdale.

You can read SPJ Georgia board member Julius Suber’s review of the event here.

Photo above courtesy of Julius Suber.

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Jailing of the Press

Big names like Amy Goodman may shout loudly enough that after soliciting national media’s attention, judges drop silly charges that critically challenge their freedom of the press. But not everyone has that kind of pull, and not everyone sees the law play in its favor.

Down in Dawson County, Ga., where less than 25,000 (mostly white) people live, committing acts of journalism can land you in jail.

Nydia Tisdale learned this after years of covering public meetings without any connection to a newspaper, just in fulfilling what she considers her calling: Citizen journalism.

SPJ Florida president, national SPJ Diversity Committee chair, and overall badass Dori Zinn has the story…


Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting

By Dori Zinn

Nydia Tisdale showed up to record a Georgia Republican Party campaign rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville on Aug. 23, 2014.

A little bit into her recording, she was forcibly removed by a police officer, even after admitting she had received permission to be at the public gathering by one of the property owners. In the video, you can hear her crying, “Help! Help! Help!” and shouting at the officer, “Identify yourself!” and “Let go of me!” She demanded his name and badge number. He refused to give it to her. He forced her out of the public meeting area into an empty barn, bending her over a countertop and pressing his groin against her backside, leaving her with bruises and emotional distress long after her arrest.

It wouldn’t be until later, when two other officers arrive, that the officer gives Tisdale his name: Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Tony Wooten.

Tisdale was arrested and her video camera was confiscated. Later that day, she was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer, a felony. Shortly after midnight, she was released on bond and five days after that, she got her camera back.

How did she get here?

This isn’t Tisdale’s first recording. In fact, Tisdale has set up her camera for years, recording hundreds of public meetings across northern Georgia. To date, she’s been recording public meetings across the state, totaling almost 900 videos in six years.

Tisdale doesn’t even call herself a reporter. “A reporter is employed,” she says. “Once they don’t have a job, they become a journalist.”

She may have a different view of what a “reporter” is, but her work is many, many acts of journalism.

“I call myself a video journalist or citizen journalist. Really, just a single woman with a camera,” she says. “No one is dictating to me what to cover and what not to cover.”

In 2009, she was working as a property manager when there was a proposed landfill near the zoning of the property she was managing at the time.

“I was very involved in researching everything I could about the project, and I discovered over time that it wasn’t compliant with state law,” she says.

Eventually, the applicant withdrew his application, but that didn’t stop Forsyth County, where the proposal was set, from misleading the public into believing a landfill would be put there.

Tisdale went to the county meetings, speaking out against the proposal. Even after the landfill fight was over, she met with the county officials to point out all the mistakes they made, including taking advantage of the applicant, who was out tens of thousands of dollars in engineer fees, attorney fees, and paying the county.

“I’m a layperson, I don’t have a degree in this, I’m not a planner,” Tisdale says. “How come I can find these mistakes and all these people that are paid to do it can’t find these mistakes?”

Eventually, the city planner was fired. It was then that Tisdale realized sharing information from public meetings and open forums was important to her.

“With news media shrinking staff, local government isn’t being covered,” she says. “Citizen journalism fills in that gap.”

Tisdale journalism

Tisdale used to easily put 80 to 100 miles on her car a day covering a meeting. She can get around the state if she chooses, but typically stays in north Georgia. Early on, she would record three meetings a day if they were in the same location, but now she goes to about two to three meetings a week.

It’s not limited to one type of meeting, either. She’ll go to city council meetings, county commission meetings, republican and democrat meetings, citizen forums, debates, and literally anything that is open to the public that informs citizens and voters.

When she arrives at whatever meeting she’s going to, she’ll get some shots of the building or the area around where the meeting is being held. Then she’ll record the meeting in its entirety. “Gavel to gavel,” she says.

From there, she edits very little of her actual recording. She indexes her videos, so if you want to skip ahead to a certain part, it’s easy. Sometimes, if one part is more meaningful than the rest, she’ll make an excerpt of it.

“I give the full context and speech,” she says. “It’s unfiltered and without commentary.”

While Tisdale has been hired to film some public meetings, she doesn’t normally get paid. But she does have a PayPal donation option on her website, AboutForsyth.com. Journalism isn’t her primary source of income, but it occupies as much time as a full-time journalism job.

When she started attending meetings and realized they weren’t compliant with Georgia Sunshine Laws, she’d complain to the city, county, or whatever body was in charge of that meeting. Now she carries around a copy of it to every meeting she attends, sometimes handing out copies to other people.

Despite her solid six years and 900 videos, this is her first time facing jail time for recording open meetings.

What’s happening now?

Tisdale’s original 2014 charges — a misdemeanor criminal trespass and a felony obstruction of an officer — got an additional obstruction of an officer charge, this time as a misdemeanor, bringing her total to three. She was indicted on Nov. 16, 2015 in Dawson County, but not before giving an ante litem notice — an intent to sue — on Aug. 20, 2015 to everyone involved in the 2014 arrest, including: Dawson County, the Sheriff’s office, the three officers that arrested Tisdale, and Johnny and Kathy Burt of Burt’s Farm, among others.

She was formally arraigned this year on March 15 and filed her federal lawsuit against the three officers that arrested her on May 9, including Officer Tony Wooten. On Aug. 22, she made a complaint to Dawson County about Wooten’s physical abuse during her arrest and an incident report was made the next day, alleging sexual assault. Wooten resigned from the Dawson County Sherriff’s Office the same day.

In early October, Tisdale had a pre-trial motions hearing in her criminal case, but no judgment has been made.

Jail time may be pending for Tisdale, but she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“I really enjoy what I do. It’s a passion,” she says. “Any event that’s worth remembering, I usually have a camera and I record it.”


Dori Zinn is a full-time freelance journalist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her work has been featured in MoneyTalksNews.com, Realtor.com, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, South Florida Gay News, and others.

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The secret state of Massachusetts

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.

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Ask an expert: How to appeal a FOIA rejection

Over and over again, I hear journalists complain about being rejected by government agencies when making Freedom of Information Act requests and how difficult it is to successfully file an appeal. So I’ve decided to consult with an expert.

Meet Michael Morisy, co-founder of the MuckRock, a collaborative news site that works with its users in filing Freedom of Information Requests and reports on the results. Since it was founded in 2010, MuckRock has filed almost 12,000 FOIA requests and published over 430,000 pages of government documents.

Here’s his advice:

What avenues can journalists take when their federal Freedom of Information Act request is rejected?

“It’s very easy to get discouraged because usually with FOIA requests you have waited months and months and then you get rejection and it’s pretty intimidating. I would encourage veteran FOIA requesters to appeal every single response they get back. Even if they get some documents, a lot of times people are pretty successful in appealing and saying I don’t think this is everything, keep looking.

I really encourage everybody to take advantage of the various appeal opportunities because you don’t need a lawyer, it’s not a deep understanding of sort-of legal procedure, you just need to send a letter and say ‘I appeal.’ That is a very accessible avenue for everybody. But it really depends on the type of rejection you see and what you are going after.”

What resources can journalists use to help them craft an appeal?

“At MuckRock, we have a bunch of appeals that people can browse through. We also have a question and answer section where if you have a specific rejection, it’s a free resource where everyone can talk. We also have a couple hundred FOIA experts who come in and provide question and answer responses. The RCFP (Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press) has a number of really good response guides and appeal templates.”

How often do appeals work?

“It varies a lot, but we’ve seen about 30 to 40 percent of the time an appeal is at least partially successful. It does add time to the process, but usually an agency can’t say we are going to give you nothing. This is where I think the appeals process is very useful because it tells the agency I’m serious about the request and you need to actually process it. Agencies love to say, ‘well this exemption applies so we are not going to give you the documents you want.’ But rarely does the exemption apply to everything and so by appealing, you can sort of go back to the agency and say, no. Even if parts of what I requested are exempt, not everything is exempt. So please release “separable” information. [Separable] is kind of the keywords I think has been helpful for people.

The first thing you should do is read the rejection letter because that almost always has where you need to send an appeal. Usually where you send the appeal is different than where you sent the original request.”

If you have a piece of advise for someone who may be getting discouraged during the appeal process, what would you tell them?

“I would tell people this is not a personal process. Maybe 90 percent of the time, the people receiving and processing these requests don’t really care about the outcome. They are just trying to do their job and so being kind, professional, but assertive is really important. This particularly applies for the appeal. So take and closely read why the request was rejected in the first place. Was it too vague? You can say, okay I only want documents between this date and this date. Or maybe, I only want emails from this person in March rather than a very broad request.
That is a problem, where many requests are just too broad. So on your appeal, you can kind of narrow your request and try and negotiate with the agency to try and figure out what you are looking for.”

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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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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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Must read FOI stories – 5/23/14

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

Wisconsin court ruling is a real danger to open records. It’s a big problem giving government officials the right to “consider the intentions of people who file open records request when deciding whether to fill them.”

The joy of public records — You can’t make this stuff up… No spoilers on this one, you just have to click it.

It took four months to redact a majority of a top-secret Pentagon report conducted to determine the damage done by the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. It concluded that “the scope of the compromised knowledge related to US intelligence capabilities is staggering.”

The FOIA Project just uploaded 97 new FOIA court documents, plus case descriptions. No need to pay for a PACER account now.

Federal Appeals Court ruling says that the CIA can keep their 50-year-old internal account of the Bay of Pigs secret indefinitely.

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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