RTDNA applauds President for signing FOIA Improvement Act

June 30, 2016 04:25

RTDNA applauds President Barack Obama today for signing the FOIA Improvement Act, just days before the original Freedom of Information Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson nearly 50 years ago.

"We are pleased to see many of the important reforms we have fought for become law today," said RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender. "It marks an important step forward in the right of Americans to have access to information about how the government is working on their behalf."

In a news release, the White House said it would take additional steps to ensure transparency, including:
  • The President is tasking the Chief FOIA Officers Council to identify and address the biggest difficulties that exist in administering FOIA across government, beginning with a July 22 meeting. The President will direct the Council to work with stakeholders inside and outside of government, including the FOIA Advisory Committee, which has new members, including SPJ President-Elect Lynn Walsh.
  • Promoting broader release of records through a “release to one is a release to all” presumption.
  • The President has directed the Office of Management and Budget, in coordination with the Department of Justice, to issue new guidance later this year that will advance open government principles related to transparency and FOIA, including the implementation of the FOIA Improvement Act.
The new law, passed earlier this month by the U.S. House of Represenatives and the Senate in March, (S. 337), is based on the presumption of openness for public information, gives the FOIA Ombudsman the independent voice that Congress intended to recommend improvements to FOIA, and end the ability of agencies to withhold information revealing policy deliberations after 25 years. The key provisions include:
  • Strengthening the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) by clarifying the Office must speak with an independent voice. Currently OGIS must seek input from other agencies and the Office of Management and Budget before making its recommendations for improving FOIA available to the public. This limits what OGIS can say.
  • Ensuring future administrations start from a presumption of openness. That means agencies may withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would cause specific, identifiable harm from one of the nine types of interests already protected by FOIA (such as personal privacy, national security and trade secrets). Agencies have used this same standard since 2009.
  • Pushing agencies to modernize technology in responding to FOIA requests by creating a single FOIA portal to accept FOIA requests for any agency.
  • Requiring agencies to submit annual FOIA processing statistics a month earlier each year so they are available for Sunshine Week.
  • Limiting the ability of agencies to keep internal deliberations confidential to a period of 25 years. Agencies would lose the ability to cite Exemption 5 (protecting internal deliberations) in denying requests if the information is more than 25 years old.
In a news release from the Sunshine in Goverment Initiative (SGI), of which RTDNA is a member, director Rick Blum said, "We are pleased to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the original Freedom of Information Act with a stronger FOIA. We thank President Obama for signing the legislation into law. FOIA is the most effective oversight tool available to the public, including journalists. Over the last 50 years, FOIA has helped improve public safety, save taxpayer dollars, and expose malfeasance or just plain bad decisions. Strengthening FOIA and limiting the government’s ability to abuse or plain ignore it is a fitting birthday present to the American people as we celebrate the Fourth of July and FOIA’s 50th birthday.”

The bill represents years of work by transparency advocates across the country, led by the SGI, a coalition of nine media groups: RTDNA, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Online News Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.