Journalists and First Amendment advocates faced discouraging news last week when VICE News reporter Jason Leopold pulled back the curtain on secret attempts to hamstring open records laws in the United States.
Leopold, who’s been hailed by The New York Times and others for his skill at prying secrets from the government, disclosed that the Obama administration worked behind the scenes to torpedo a bill that would have sped and streamlined public records requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.
His scoop — ironically scored through a FOIA request — showed that the White House and the Department of Justice worked to undermine the passage of the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014, which initially passed with bipartisan support but ultimately died in the legislature.
…The administration “strongly opposed passage” of the House bill and opposed nearly every provision that would have made it easier for journalists, historians, and the public to access government records. The White House claimed it would increase the FOIA backlog, result in astronomical costs, and cause unforeseen problems with processing requests, according to a secret six-page DOJ set of talking points turned over to the Freedom of the Press Foundation along with 100 pages of internal DOJ emails about the FOIA bill.
Leopold’s story landed just a few days before Sunshine Week, an annual call for more access to public information organized by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Sunshine Week, which began on Sunday, will continue through the weekend and feature a slew of events throughout the United States dedicated to teaching journalists how to find and decipher public records.
It couldn’t have come at a more pivotal time. As election day approaches, Americans will soon choose the next chief executive of the federal government, an individual who wields immense power over the state of transparency in the United States. The Obama administration, which pledged to usher in an unprecedented era of openness, is increasingly denying or censoring government files when presented with FOIA requests, according to a 2015 analysis by the Associated Press. The government also reversed itself “in nearly 1 in 3 cases,” after being challenged under the law. Obama’s successor will have the ability to reverse this trend and shape public opinion around the issue of open access to information.
But it’s not just the presidency that faces a huge test related to freedom of information. A bill is currently working its way through the legislature that could have enormous bearing on access to federal records. The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2016, which is more expansive than the bill that failed to pass in 2014, would sign into law an executive directive put forward by President Obama stating that most government records are presumed to be public by default. It would also cut down on exemptions, conditions cited by government agencies to justify refusing to grant requests. The passage of this law would change the way the federal government views records, regardless of who the next president is.
And that’s important. The proliferation of digital records and public databases means that there’s more crucial data than ever to sort through. And the financial pressures facing news organizations across the United States mean there’s fewer reporters to parse this data than ever before. The last thing news organizations want — the last thing the public wants — is an additional hurdle separating journalists from information America’s citizens need to know.
That’s why, in honor of Sunshine Week, Poynter will publish multiple stories over the next few days about battles for transparency across the United States and shining a spotlight on the journalists fighting them.
Although the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t get much airtime on the major cable networks, it should remain on the forefront of the public discourse as we inch closer to election day. You don’t see much talk about transparency on our many televised presidential debates. But the ongoing public debate — one that has sustained this country for more than two centuries — depends on it.