Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Legal scholars overlook scholarship about state FOIA, but dedicated academics toil for state transparency

Professor Robert Steinbuch and I aim to draw attention to the undersung work of state-law transparency  scholars through our recent publication in the Rutgers Law Record.  Here is the introductory paragraph.

We have read with interest Christina Koningisor’s publication, Transparency Deserts. While there is much to be lauded in the work – all access advocates would like to see more scholarship and publicity about the importance of transparency and accountability – we are disheartened by the article’s failure to recognize the extant vibrant body of scholarship and activism in state freedom of information law.

[¶] We, moreover, find this omission characteristic of a broader ignorance in legal academia of the sweat and toil of legal scholars, scholar-practitioners, and interdisciplinary academics who analyze and advocate for state transparency laws. This blind spot particularly manifests, unfortunately, among those at elite (typically coastal) law schools, who generally contribute vitally to the literature of the undoubtedly important federal transparency regime. These federal freedom-of-information scholars too often neglect the critical importance of state transparency laws – as well as state-transparency legal academics.

[¶] Quite in contrast, state-law access advocates generally acknowledge the value of federal statutory analogs, often referencing federal norms and practices comparatively, while, nonetheless, working upon the apt assumption that state access laws, en masse, have a greater day-to-day impact in improving Americans’ lives and in enhancing democratic accountability in America than does the federal Freedom of Information Act. Koningisor’s article evidences this disappointing tension. 

The publication is Transparency Blind Spot: A Response to Transparency Deserts, 48 Rutgers L. Rec. 1 (2020).  The publication is available for download from SSRN.  

Christina Koningisor, author of the referenced Transparency Deserts, kindly responded on the FOI listserv and gave me permission to share her thoughts.  Included is a link to her ongoing work.  Professor Steinbuch and I could not be happier to engage in a dialog that educates scholars and the public on the importance of state FOIA.

[T]hank you to Rick and Rob for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond to my piece. I sincerely appreciate it. And I take your points of criticism. The article certainly could have benefited from drawing more upon the excellent state-level scholarship that you cite in your response to my piece. I will also be sure, moving forward, to draw more heavily from the accomplished work being done by communications and journalism scholars. The point that I meant to make in my article, and which I should have stated more clearly, is that there is less overarching scholarship on public records laws across the fifty states. Of course, there are excellent state-by-state studies and critiques, some of which I cite in my piece, and many of which I do not, and which you have helpfully flagged in your response. But I was more interested in the work that has been done looking at the state of these laws as a whole. At this level, we can begin to make generalizations about what is working and what is not that are more difficult to observe when focusing solely on a single state. Rick and Rob's response seems to suggest that such surveys are inherently flawed, because they will inevitably be underinclusive and cannot possibly account for the variation across the fifty state legal regimes and the hundreds of thousands of state and local government entities. I agree—I explicitly make this point, and acknowledge the limitations of tackling such a diverse array of laws and government entities in my article's methodology section. But I believe it is nonetheless important to take stock of how these laws operate nationwide, so long as we are forthright and honest about the limitations of any fifty-state survey. I think there is value in and space in the literature for both state-by-state deep-dives and overarching cross-state examinations. Rick and Rob do highlight, in their appendix, some of the broader cross-state scholarship on state public records law that I failed to cite, most of which are published in communications and journalism journals. Again, I concede this point and agree that I should become more familiar with this interdisciplinary work.

I also want to note briefly that my Article reaches a somewhat more nuanced conclusion than transparency is simply worse at the state and local level. I do stress the significant advantages that many state public records laws have over FOIA, including the more rapid response times, the absence of a national security apparatus and classification process impeding access, and, often, the greater accessibility of state and local records officers, among other advantages. I also note that many of these state laws suffer drawbacks when compared to FOIA: many do not have easy and relatively cheap administrative-level appeal options, for example, and the costs of records production at the state and local level can often be prohibitive. Further, although there is no national security secrecy apparatus at the state and local level, it is often exceptionally difficult to obtain records from state and local law enforcement agencies. The piece was in fact inspired by my experiences working as a lawyer at The New York Times, where, in the process of assisting reporters with their federal, state, and local records requests across the country (not just in the coastal states!), I noticed that local police departments were often the most difficult agencies to obtain records from, in some ways even more secretive and difficult to work with than even the federal intelligence agencies. But more critically, the article emphasizes that when these state laws do fail—and I think we can all agree that they sometimes do—there are fewer alternative routes for information to come to light. These transparency failures are exacerbated by broader structural features of state and local government, including reduced external checks from local media and civil society organizations, and reduced intra-governmental checks between the various branches of government. This is of course not to say that every law fails in every instance, or that there aren't many excellent civil society organizations in many places doing critical work on government transparency and oversight. Of course there are abundant examples of such laudable advocacy efforts. But there are also many places across the country where local media institutions have disappeared, civil society organizations are in dire financial straits, and intra-governmental checks are muted. The nation's access laws are remarkably diverse, and contain myriad examples of both transparency failures and successes.

Once again, I very much appreciate these thoughtful and incisive responses to my piece, and I hope to continue this conversation moving forward. I have a new state transparency law-related article, [Secrecy Creep,] forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. It is still quite early in the editing process, so I would love to hear any feedback and suggestions ....

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