Sunshine Week — when people who care about government advocate to make it more transparent — has arrived at a moment in 2016 when Utah’s congressional delegation can help make the federal government provide citizens more information about its work.
The House has passed a bill that will improve the Freedom of Information Act. The Senate is pondering its own bill. It’s the weaker of the pair, but would still give citizens better access to federal records than what they currently enjoy.
The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists asks Utah’s congressional delegation to seize this opportunity and improve the federal government’s records law.
You should encourage the delegation to pass one of the bills, too. Here’s why.
First, the Freedom of Information Act, known as “FOIA,” is the law that requires the federal government to disclose certain records. If you’ve never filed an FOIA request, you probably side with someone who has. One of the most active requesters is the conservative organization Judicial Watch. Environmental groups request records, too. Academics use FOIA to write a better draft of history.
Journalists in Utah have used the law, too. We’ve obtained reports from federal land agencies, documents about fraud against the government and how bikini models got to photograph a calendar on a Utah National Guard base.
There are some limits that protect individual privacy, safety and security. Often, federal agencies exceed those limits and redact documents or deny requests altogether rather than fulfill the spirit of the law, if not its letter.
In one example, the U.S. Marshals Service has refused to provide journalists a single sheet of paper about, or a snippet of video from, the April 21, 2014, shooting that killed defendant Siale Angilau. That’s despite how the marshal shot Angilau in an open courtroom during a public trial and Angilau’s family and supporters have raised questions about what happened.
Both the House and Senate bills would limit redactions or denials to when an agency “reasonably foresees” that the records would cause “harm” to an interest such as privacy, safety or security. The current law gives the agencies more discretion to withhold records, which leads to secrecy when it isn’t warranted.
The House version also mandates that the federal government pay the attorney fees of anyone who successfully sues the federal government over an FOIA denial. Utah has a similar requirement under the state’s record laws, and it has provided an incentive for local government to comply with the law early and removed a barrier for requesters seeking redress.
Neither bill should have an impact on records the average American wouldn’t want public, like war plans, passwords and individual medical information. But if made law, these reforms would make it more difficult for federal agencies to withhold records like they have in the Angilau shooting.
The House of Representatives passed its bill at the urging of House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the ranking Democrat on the committee. Utah Rep. Rob Bishop was a co-sponsor. The Senate version has sponsors from both parties, too.
Conditions appear optimal for reform, and for Utah’s congressional delegation. They can lead both parties in both chambers in spreading more sunshine on the federal government.
The Society of Professional Journalists is dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty. The Utah Headliners Chapter represents journalists across the state. Learn more at www.spj.org.
Carlisle represents the Utah Headliners Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.