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50 Years of FOIA

How our open records laws stack up

April 7, 2016

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Freedom of Information Act, which gives anyone the right to request documents from the government for any reason. It is a cornerstone of American journalism; one of the sharpest teeth on the watchdog. 


In commemoration of the FOIA, Nieman Reports wrote this piece highlighting some of the many victories and tactics of successful records requests, and on how transparent our government actually is. 


The piece details some of the problems inherent in our open records system, including the way that we arbiter disputes between journalists and government bodies: In court. Public records—records that the public legally has a right to see—are often times only accessible after years of costly legislation. Knowing that news organizations often cannot afford to fight in court, many government bodies resistant to releasing information will claim an exemption for the purpose of pushing it to the legal system, even if they know that the information legally belongs to the public. 


Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index lists the United States at number 49 out of 180 countries, below countries like Niger and Burkina Faso. They list judicial harassment of reporters and lack of a federal law protecting journalist's right not to name their sources as issues with our FOIA law.


On his first day in office, President Barack Obama issued this memorandum on the FOIA, which encouraged transparency in his administration and all levels of government. However, the Obama administration has had one of the worst FOIA response rates of any presidential administration. 


Nieman argues that bureaucratic incentives are partially to blame for resistance to complying with records laws—low-level government workers have little reason to provide information to journalists and risk getting in trouble with their bosses.

They also outline modern sharing culture as a culprit. As citizens are more open to sharing information (including their own) online, the more the government recognizes what can be gleaned from their own records and subsequently become more resistant to complying with records laws.


In a post-9/11 culture haunted by the fear of terrorism, many Americans may be willing to partially give up this right to information for the sake of security. American security is important and can be a valid argument for some records request refusals—information that would endanger American security in high-risk situations is already exempt from open records laws. However, cultural leniency with the right to public information for the sake of fear can lead to acceptance of further secrecy from government organizations and a less informed electorate.


Of course, we still benefit from having a government system that recognizes the power of accountability, even if each agency wishes it didn't apply to them. Having a FOIA law in the first place allows us to contest abuses of it, which is what journalists need to keep doing to make sure that citizens' right to information is upheld. 

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