Showing posts with label FOIA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FOIA. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

FOIA scores among John Oliver's three favorite things

Of all the funny takes on an outraged voter's crashing of a Nevada election press conference, John Oliver's takes top honors for featuring government transparency through the Freedom of Information Act.

 

See the full segment on Election Results 2020 on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Nov. 8, 2020.

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 ....

Monday, October 19, 2020

Court: Irish officials must justify non-disclosure under FOIA exemption for commercial information

Ireland Supreme Court chamber (Michael Foley CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In two judgments in late September, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 2014 exemption for confidential commercial information is not mandatory and that public entities relying on the exemption "must explain why the public interest does not justify release."

In both cases, public entities responding to record requests had been permitted to rely on the prima facie application of the exemption.  That approach fell short of the Irish FOIA's legislative command, the Supreme Court reasoned, because the record requesters were given no information with which to test the validity of the exemption.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

Federal and state FOIAs in the United States also exempt from disclosure confidential information that private entities supply to government when disclosure would jeopardize the private entity's competitive position.  The exemptions operate also to shield public information from disclosure that would jeopardize the government's own competitive position as an actor in the private marketplace.

The U.S. FOIA does not, and state FOIAs typically do not, require that a public agency independently test confidential-information exemption against the public interest in disclosure, essentially second-guessing private owners' confidentiality designations.  To the contrary, legislative exemptions in some states are mandatory, and not, as U.S. FOIA exemptions are, committed to administrative discretion.  Current federal policy permits the disclosure of some statutorily exempt records, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) counsels agencies to engage in "full and deliberate" analysis of competing interests.  As to federal exemption 4, for confidential information, the DOJ has opined that such information "would not ordinarily be the subject of discretionary FOIA disclosure."

University College Cork, 2019 (Michael O'Sheil CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, unlike U.S. FOIA exemption 4 ("trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential," 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)), the Irish exemption for confidential information is limited by a "public interest override."  According to the Irish law, the exemption does not apply when according to the agency "head concerned, the public interest would, on balance, be better served by granting than by refusing to grant the FOI request."  Public interest overrides favoring disclosure are uncommon in U.S. access-to-information law, except in balancing analyses involving personnel records.

Journalist Gavin Sheridan, 2014 (Markus ›fin‹ Hametner CC BY 2.0)
Decided on September 25, 2020, both cases in Ireland involved journalistic investigations.  In Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 57, journalist, FOI advocate, and founding CEO of Vizlegal, a legal information service provider, Gavin Sheridan (recent profile at The Attic) sought access to a state contract with service wholesaler E-Nasc Éireann Teoranta (eNet) to provide public access to fibre-optic-cable infrastructure.  In University College Cork v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 58, news broadcaster RTÉ sought information about a €100m loan by the European Investment Bank to the National University of Ireland, Cork.  Both court opinions were authored by Justice Marie Baker, herself a U. Cork alumna, with four other justices concurring.

More details and further analysis of the cases are available from Andrew McKeown BL at Irish Legal News (Sept. 28, 2020), and from Bébhinn Bollard, Doug McMahon, and Brendan Slattery at McCann FitzGerald (Oct. 12, 2020).

Friday, October 9, 2020

Could 'inverse' First Amendment save us from ourselves?

Journalism professor Stephen Bates, J.D., University of Nevada Las Vegas, has published a fascinating article in The Atlantic on "the inverted First Amendment," as envisioned by philosopher William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) in the 1940s.

Hocking on National
Educational Television
As Bates explains, Hocking posited that a correct interpretation of the First Amendment command, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech," incorporates the command that, sometimes, Congress must make laws that further the freedom of speech.

Post-war America was beset with the perception that mass media were out of control, contributing, as Bates describes, to "polarization, echo chambers, and provocateurs."  That's a good reminder for our times that since the Spanish-American War and subsequent, in part consequent, invention of modern journalism, it's never quite been the idyllic institution of our imaginations.  Hocking contributed a key study to the work of the U.S. Commission on Freedom of the Press, on which he served.

The commission, otherwise known as the Hutchins Commission after chair and University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, produced a landmark 1947 report.  Concluding that the press is a vital institution in American democracy, the Hutchins Report could have been read as justification for government regulation in furtherance of social responsibility.  The report was read to bolster the controversial development of journalism professionalization and ethics codes.

Hocking's inverse, or positive, First Amendment would have compelled the government affirmatively to protect free speech and even to promote journalism.  This model of positive speech regulation is not unknown in American media law.  In the broadcast medium, because it was not afforded full First Amendment protection, the dubiously constitutional fairness doctrine was instigated by the Hutchins Commission.  In the same vein and medium, we still have, however increasingly irrelevant it is, the equal time rule.  There is some debate over whether there is not some minimal positive requirement in the First Amendment penumbra.  For example, due process in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments may be read to require that a court respond to a complainant's filing—a petition for redress of grievance—if only to dismiss it.

A positive First Amendment could have been the basis for a constitutional right of freedom of information, or access to information, in lieu of the later enacted and oft beleaguered Freedom of Information Act of 1967.  Some states and many countries, not to mention international human rights systems, declare a constitutional or human right of access to information, which may require government transparency and even the affirmative publication of information.

Pres. Roosevelt
proposes a Second
Bill of Rights in
January 1944.

More broadly, the notion of positive civil rights, as opposed to the mostly negative commands of the U.S. Bill of Rights, animates constitutional law in many other countries, especially in association with what are sometimes called "second" and "third generation," or "red" and "green" rights, guaranteeing socioeconomic interests, such as employment, food, housing, and a safe environment, as opposed to "first generation," "blue" rights of a political nature.  ("Generations" models of human rights have been criticized fairly as inadequate, if not patronizing, to describe socio-legal development, but the model is still usefully descriptive in some contexts.)  In fact, some positive, "second generation" rights would have been enshrined in U.S. law, had President Franklin Roosevelt's "Second Bill of Rights" gained traction.  The famously expansive constitution of South Africa well models the codification of socioeconomic rights, while the experience of the courts and the people of South Africa speaks simultaneously to the challenges of making the model work, and the arguable perils of constitutionalizing aspiration.

Prof. Bates
An inverted First Amendment could empower the government to combat misinformation, or "fake news," today in ways that the First Amendment as presently understood forbids.  However, Bates recognizes, such a positive First Amendment would have a dark side to contend with.  A strong interpretation of a positive First Amendment could justify government regulation that would suppress speech in the interest of furthering other speech, just as the fairness doctrine was said to have done.  Critiquing contemporary calls to regulate the internet, Paul Matzko for the libertarian Cato Institute wrote in 2019:

In one of her early newsletters, Ayn Rand excoriated the public interest standard as an excuse covering “the right of some men (those who, by some undefined criterion, are the public) to sacrifice the interests of other men (of those who, for unspecified reasons are not the public)” [1962].

Rand’s words were meant particularly for FCC Chairman Newton Minow, who, in what may be the only famous speech by an FCC commissioner, had described television as a “vast wasteland” and called for limits on the number of game shows, Westerns, and cartoons aired....

.... The more serious danger was the routine weaponization of the public interest standard to advance private or partisan interests. For example, during the early 1940s, the Roosevelt administration pushed for a ban on newspaper ownership of radio stations, ostensibly because of the public’s interest in preventing cross-media consolidation, but also to prevent anti-New Deal newspaper owners from having a radio platform from which to criticize the President’s policies. The FCC during Richard Nixon’s administration would use a similar rule to try and pressure the Washington Post into abandoning its investigation of the Watergate scandal. 

Sometimes the government does, itself, get into the business of journalism.  Yet recent rancor between President Trump and the Voice of America over what the President seems to perceive as partisan disloyalty shows that VOA's very credibility throughout the world depends on its statutorily mandated editorial independence.

The line between government action to protect a negative First Amendment, such as an artistic-value savings provision in indecency law, and government regulation to further a positive First Amendment, such as leveling the free speech marketplace with a must-publish or must-censor rule, is much finer in practice than in theory.  As Bates observes, "Hocking was a philosopher, not a lawyer."

The article is Stephen Bates, The Man Who Wanted to Save the First Amendment by Inverting It, The Atlantic, Oct. 7, 2020.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Photo is 'copy,' court has to explain to city, police in state record access case under Arkansas FOIA

Professor Robert. E. Steinbuch at the University of Arkansas Little Rock reports a startling case under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—startling because a lawsuit never should have been necessary, much less an appeal.  Professor Steinbuch wrote in opinion in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
Attorney Ben Motal visited the Little Rock Police Department headquarters to inspect and copy an accident report under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The police refused to allow Motal to copy the report by taking a photograph using his cell phone. He sued.
In response, the city filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that a citizen must choose to either inspect, copy, or receive a government record—notwithstanding the metaphysical impossibility of this claim. How can you copy a record without at least somewhat inspecting it—with your eyes closed?
Then, the city argued that a photograph is not a "copy." Remarkably, the trial court judge, Mackie Pierce, agreed. He said that "if the Legislature wanted to give you the right to photograph public records, they could have easily used the word 'photograph.' They didn't. They used 'copy' and 'copying.'"
. . . .
Pierce also dismissed the case because the city relented after being sued, and it provided the records directly to Motal without any need to photograph or otherwise copy them. We see this type of legal manipulation all the time, wherein public entities comply with the law only after being sued and then seek to Jedi-mind-trick their way out of litigation by asserting in court that "there's nothing to see here—move along, move along."
The result too often is that only attorneys and those who can afford attorneys have rights, because they can sue. If you're a regular Joe, you don't have any rights, say the city and the trial judge, because they've orchestrated it that there's no precedent to protect you when the city repeats the same bad acts they did to Motal.
Reversing, the Arkansas Court of Appeals, per Judge Kenneth S. Hixson, ruled in favor of Motal.  Now the city claims it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Professor Steinbuch predicts the city will not succeed, despite a dubiously reasoned dissent by Judge Raymond R. Abramson, who would have ruled the case moot ("these are not the droids we're looking for") and parroted the city's argument.  Judge Hixson was an attorney in private practice before going on the bench.  Judge Abramson was a municipal police court judge and a city attorney.

Steinbuch is right in his reasoning and his prediction.  Shame on the LRPD and the City of Little Rock.  They seem to fundamentally misunderstand that a public record belongs to the public.  They are only its custodians.

The opinion piece is Robert E. Steinbuch, "Photo" Finish, Ark. Democrat-Gazette, May 22, 2020.  With University of Arkansas Professor John J. Watkins, Professor Steinbuch and I are co-authors of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (6th ed. 2017) (excerpt of prior edition at SSRN), which Judge Hixson referenced.

The case is Motal v. City of Little Rock, No. CV-19-344, 2020 Ark. App. 308 (Ark. Ct. App. May 13, 2020), also available from Justia.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Tort litigation as means to truth about the Troubles, authors propose; approach parallels access theory

A new article from researchers in Newcastle, England, posits the use of tort litigation to exonerate the right to truth in relation to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The authors are Conall Mallory, University of Northumbria at Newcastle,  Sean Molloy, Newcastle University, and Colin Murray, Newcastle University Law School.  Their article is Tort, Truth Recovery and the Northern Ireland Conflict, forthcoming 2020 in the European Human Rights Law Review and available on SSRN.  (Hat tip @ Steve Hedley, Private Law Theory.)  Here is an excerpt of the abstract.
Northern Ireland has no effective process to address [the] legacy of the human tragedy of decades of conflict. And yet during that conflict, and especially in the years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 1998, people have employed multiple legal mechanisms to gain information about events which affected them and their loved ones.... One under-explored element of this complex picture is use of tort in legacy cases. Civil actions, supported by legal aid funding in Northern Ireland, provide a potential avenue for the discovery of information held by public bodies. Even unsuccessful actions can thus contribute new information about the events in question. Many of the harms inflicted during the conflict were torts as well as crimes, and this article assesses the extent to which these civil actions provide an ersatz mechanism for truth recovery, and challenges efforts to curtail such actions as a "witch-hunt."
Derry clash, Apr. 1971 (N. Ire. public record)
The right to truth is a piece in the puzzle of truth-and-reconciliation strategies as they have been implemented with variable success in post-conflict venues around the world.  The strategies are predicated on the notion that the revelation of truth has value in of itself to victims and survivors.  The conventional legal system, focused as it tends to be on compensation, often accomplishes nothing when compensation fails to materialize, or even nothing in the way of meaningful remedy if compensation does happen.  Thus truth proceedings are regarded as a hallmark legal innovation to clear the decks and allow peoples and nations to move forward.  So well regarded is this principle that human rights instruments and institutions have come to recognize "the right to truth" as a human right, a necessary corollary to the right to life.

In this article, the authors lament that there has been no effective, systematic truth process following the Troubles.  To the contrary, they posit, the U.K. government has as often thrown up roadblocks to truthful revelation.  A patchwork of legal mechanisms has nonetheless allowed truth to surface, they explain, and they review the efficacy of legal actions such as human rights litigation and information requests under the U.K. Freedom of Information Act.

Tort litigation offers another, as yet underutilized avenue, they propose.  For reference, they point to the Alien Tort Statute in U.S. jurisprudence, though, I add, it has lately fallen on hard times in the U.S. Supreme Court; and they point to U.K. agreements in recent years to pay claimants in Kenya and Cyprus in compensation for violent colonial suppression in the 1950s.  Survivors of the Troubles, even those who were children at the time, may press tort claims, such as battery, trespass, and civil conspiracy, against violent actors in the Troubles, whether British security officials, IRA fighters, or other paramilitarists.

British Army patrol in Kenya during 1950s Mau Mau Uprising
(Imperial War Museums)
Tort litigation in the proposed vein is not a new idea, but stumbles amid many hurdles, not the least of which is sovereign immunity.  But immunity can be overcome in actions against persons, whether non-governmental or gone rogue.  And there is ample evidence of both in the history of the Troubles.  An IRA defendant, for example, may be a purely private actor, and a British official who inflicted violence might be sufficiently dissociated from government policy as to negate immunity.  There's a fine line anyway between tort litigation and human rights claims, see Stefan Somers's whole book on the subject, the two more or less coinciding in the United States in the area of "constitutional tort."

Anyway, the authors claims, the plaintiffs in these tort actions do not actually have to win; they just have to survive dismissal to get to discovery.  Because their aim, remember, is truth, not compensation.  So the authors are really proposing that tort litigation be used for its discovery methods, regardless of the outcome of the case.  They moreover suggest that the litigation might shake loose answers from the government to avoid the prospect of compensation, or at least the cost of litigating, and they illustrate that having happened already in select cases.

The idea of using tort litigation for its discovery mechanism rather than with the aim of compensation is dicey, but not wholly objectionable.  Ethically a lawyer should not file an action that isn't winnable upon some rational theory.  But these cases wouldn't fail that test; there's no rule against having a multitude of aims in the fight, even if you think you'll lose on decision.  Of course, American tort lawyers are often criticized (whether it's true or not, discussion for another day) for playing fast and loose with that understanding, using the litigation process and its hefty transaction costs to shake down defendants on barely credible claims.  Here at least the aim is truth, rather than a pay day, so an aim with some sanction in civil rights.

The proposed litigation strategy reminds me of the work I've been doing lately (e.g., U.S. reform proposal) on the freedom of information, or right to access to information, in South African law.  There, a provision of law allows access to private sector records upon stringent prerequisites, namely, the exoneration of human rights.  The right to truth is one right that should fit that bill, a co-author and I have posited (abstract on SSRN, blog).  In a conventional South African FOI case, the courts allowed access to the records of a public steel company to investigate the exploitation of Apartheid labor.  It's a short leap from there to investigation of a private company with similarly sinister secrets.

Moreover, the South African courts have put some mileage on the private-sector-access law as a tool for "pre-discovery," before tort litigation is filed, to help a would-be plaintiff test the evidentiary waters.  That approach can only make litigation more efficient, more than one South African court has reasoned, by filtering out non-viable causes.

Those twin rationales, the right to truth and the validity of pre-discovery, seem incidentally to countenance the repurposing of tort law to the aim that Mallory, Molloy, and Murray here propose.  A comprehensive and government-sponsored approach to truth-finding would be more satisfying to those of us who like to call something what it is.  But maybe this is a way that tort law can exert policy pressure to bring about, in time, a coherent legal approach to the right to truth.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Shine the light: 'Journal of Civic Information' debuts

There can't be enough research on facilitating the freedom of information, given that today we are a global information society.  A new journal debuted this month from the Brechner Center and partners that strikes at the FOI sweet spot, and as we wish all information projects were, it's open access.  Welcome to The Journal of Civic Information.  Here is its About:

The Journal of Civic Information is an open-access, interdisciplinary journal that publishes peer-reviewed research related to the field of accessibility of public information. We welcome submissions from both scholars and practitioners from all disciplines that involve managing information for public use. 
The Journal is a publication of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. The Brechner Center is an incubator for initiatives that give the public timely and affordable access to the information necessary for informed, participatory citizenship. The Center is a source of research, expertise and advocacy about the law of gathering and disseminating news across all platforms and technologies. 
The Journal publishes quarterly online, and author submissions will be accepted on a rolling year-round basis. 
Proposals may encompass any research methodological approach (legal, survey, experimental, content analysis, etc.), and should provide insights of practical value for those who work day-to-day in access to government information. Topics may include issues regarding access to public records and meetings, court transparency, access to public employees and elected officials, open data and technology, and other related matters. The Journal gives priority to articles with relevance to the state-and-local levels of government. 
And here is the ToC for volume 1, issue 1:


Submitting authors start here.  The journal is headed by access aces Frank LoMonte, University of Florida; David Cuillier, University of Arizona; and Rachael Jones, University of Florida.  I'm privileged to add the rough edge to an otherwise exceptionally well rounded editorial board.

Bring it on, secrecy!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Colorful CUNY comics teach environmental law, policy, and social justice for all ages

Comic books are not new to legal education, but the Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) at the City University of New York Law School is trailblazing.  Among the fabulous contributions to the recently published The Media Method (CAP), a book about popular culture in legal education, is a chapter by CUNY Law Professor Rebecca Bratspies and her artist-collaborators, including Charlie La Greca.  They are using comic books to reach kids, and, well, me, to talk about environmental conservation and climate change.  They made a video, too, about the project:


When I saw Professor Bratspies at the SEALS conference in July, she gave me a copy of her most recent creation, Book 2 in the Environmental Justice Chronicles!: Bina's Planet.  Suffice to say, it's another hit.  No spoilers, but I was hooked from page one, when heroine-everywoman and high-school-soccer-star-alumna Bina returned to her school-stadium pitch, where, implicitly, young women's soccer reigns supreme.  She goes on to save the day with her colorful cohort, demonstrating en route best practices in youthful social activism à la Greta Thunberg or Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.  I love that Bratspies elevated the tale to the planetary level, making it simultaneously descriptive of the supranational threat and artfully suggestive of trending science fiction by black women writers (see also Terra Nullius).

Bina's Planet is not yet online, but is available in paper from CUER for public education projects.  While you wait for mass dissemination, catch up with Book 1, Mayah's Lot, available to download, or watch and listen online:



Incidentally, for a related CUNY workshop on the Freedom of Information Act in 2018, Bratspies, La Greca, et al., produced a pamphlet-sized special appearance of Mayah on the FOIA.  I have a copy, but cannot find an image in circulation.  I hope they'll put it online in the future.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Practical obscurity, other privacy arguments deliver blow to media in Mass. FOIA case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided a state open records case in mid-June that invites lower courts to substantially broaden privacy exemption from access to information. The case is Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Public Health, No. SJC-12622 (Mass. June 17, 2019) (Lexis).

The Boston Globe is seeking access to a database of state birth, marriage, and death records from the Department of Public Health (DPH). In disagreement with state administrative officers enforcing the open records law, DPH refused access in part, citing statutory protections of personal privacy.  The SJC rejected dispositive motions from both sides, electing to clarify the law and remand for a range of further fact finding.

The case resonates with various problems that have become familiar to privacy law over the last few decades. First, can privacy arise in a compilation of records, when the records are not private one by one?  Second, can privacy preclude disclosure of records in government possession because the records are more about individuals than about the government? Third, how can personal privacy in electronic public records account for an individual's hypothetical privacy interests in the future?

First, the compilation problem arises in that these vital records already are available to the public. Members of the public are allowed to go to  DPH's research room during 11 opening hours each week to view vital records in the electronic database. There are limitations, though. A researcher must search for a name, viewing responsive records only one at a time. Printing is not available, though there is no limitation on copying down information.

At issue legally, then, is whether mere compilation can change the public/private disposition of a record. Historically, the answer to this question was no. Norms of public records law as it developed in the 20th century held that a record should be evaluated within its four corners.

However, that position changed at the federal level, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with the landmark case, U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (U.S. 1989). In that early instance of database access, the Supreme Court construed the FOIA contrary to access on various grounds.  The case was an infamous loss for the access NGO Reporters Committee, which filed as amicus on behalf of the Globe in this case.

Among the conclusions of Reporters Committee, the Court embraced the doctrine of practical obscurity: the notion that a record that is hard to find, whether by rifling through paper or by collecting geographically disparate components, may therein preserve a privacy interest against disclosure when compiled electronically with other such records. With its limitations on record access through the research room, DPH means to effect practical obscurity. The SJC was receptive to the argument, and it will remain to the lower court to decide what weight that privacy holds. Practical obscurity has been a thorn in the side of access advocates for the 30 years since Reporters Committee, while it has captivated courts.

Second, the content problem goes to the disputed heart of access law, its purpose. In Reporters Committee and subsequent cases, the federal courts embraced the cramped position that the purpose of access law is to reveal "what government is up to." Thus when records contain personal information, access opponents ground resistance in statutory purpose without even needing to rely on privacy exemptions.

Access advocates have argued powerfully against this position, especially in the states. Simply knowing what information government is collecting about individuals seems an important priority in the digital age. And the limited purpose argument ignores the plain theoretical position that government records are public records simply by virtue of ownership or possession, because ours is a government of the people. 

On this score the SJC was more solicitous of a broad construction. The state law expressly cites the watchdog purpose. Nevertheless, the Court reasoned that the statute more broadly means to further public interests, which may require disclosure even of personally identifying information in public possession. At the same time, the Court observed that public interests may weigh against disclosure, acknowledging personal privacy protection as a public interest. In the instant case, the Court cited only a public interest in record accuracy, as argued by the Globe, to favor disclosure. The balance is left to remand, but the interest of accuracy seems thin relative to the array of privacy arguments deployed by DPH.

That array arises in connection with the third and most contemporary problem, the protection of individuals' hypothetical privacy interests. Here again is a privacy interest that conventional access law would have disregarded. Yet the SJC was solicitous.

This same problem has been much discussed in the internet age in the guise of the right to be forgotten, or right to erasure. If a government entity is obliged to disclose databases upon demand, then it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to withdraw information from the public sphere later. Access absolutists say, so be it. But privacy advocates assert that meritorious processes for correcting or sealing sensitive public records, such as criminal histories or family matters, are undermined by an internet that "never forgets."

Especially with regard to vital records, the SJC spent some ink on the problem of sex changes and the discovery of a person's birth identity. That is a factor rightly weighed into the privacy balance on remand, the Court held. While evincing compassion, the Court's position is sure to rile access advocates. There seems no logical stopping point from the Court's position to the conclusion that all personally identifying information must be protected against disclosure, in case any one person wishes to change identity in the future. That would be a rule ripe for abuse in official hands.

This decision is bad news for access advocates. It invites privacy to the table as a weight co-equal with access, virtually lifting the presumption-of-access thumb from the scale. The government won broad discretion to conceal its activities relative to people.

At the same time, the Court showed itself to be in step with contemporary privacy law. For better and worse, people are looking to government to protect them against abuses of information in the private sector, from identity theft to big data analytics. In the absence of legislation, the courts have been ever more inclined to oblige.

It remains to be seen what price this protection will exact from transparency and accountability of the government itself.

Friday, March 29, 2019

S.D. newspaper seeks transparency in federal food subsidies through SCOTUS-bound FOIA suit

Amicus brief in FMI v. Argus Leader
On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552 (LII), case concerning the federal open records law exemption for sensitive competitive information.  Textually, the American access-to-information (ATI) statute, para. (b)(4) ("exemption 4"), exempts from disclosure "trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [or legal personality] and privileged or confidential."  State ATI laws have comparable provisions, and interpretation of the federal law is sometimes influential on state courts interpreting similar language. 

Plaintiff below, Respondent Argus Leader Media publishes the Argus Leader, the largest-circulation newspaper in South Dakota, based in Sioux Falls, and a member of the USA Today newspaper network.  In investigation of federal food subsidies, the Leader invoked the FOIA to find out how much taxpayer money is paid by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to individual food retailers.  The USDA refused on a number of grounds, including exemption 4.  Joining the USDA in resisting disclosure is a trade association of food retailers, Petitioner Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

The Eighth Circuit, per U.S. Circuit Judge Jane L. Kelly, upheld the trial court's ruling in favor of the newspaper.  Argus Leader Media v. USDA, 889 F.3d 914 (8th Cir. 2018).  The court wrote: 
Applying the law to the facts, we find no basis for reversal. The trial evidence showed that the grocery industry is highly competitive, but is already rich with publically-available data that market participants (and prospective market entrants) use to model their competitors' sales. The evidence shows that releasing the contested data is likely to make these statistical models marginally more accurate. But the evidence does not support a finding that this marginal improvement in accuracy is likely to cause substantial competitive harm. The USDA's evidence showed only that more accurate information would allow grocery retailers to make better business decisions.

On appeal (No. 18-481: SCOTUSblog, Oyez), the parties dispute how to interpret exemption 4.  The Eighth Circuit followed the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court to define "confidential" as risking "substantial competitive harm."  Even within that test, lower courts have divided over the requisite degree of certainty to bring the exemption into play, from the reasonable possibility of advantage to a competitor to a near certainty that economic loss will result. FMI would instead prefer that the Court embrace a much broader exemption: what FMI calls the "ordinary meaning" of the word "confidential," that is, simply, exempting from disclosure information that a company has not disclosed.

I signed on in support of Argus Leader Media to an Amicus Brief of FOIA and First Amendment Scholars, organized by the First Amendment Clinic at Cornell Law School, by students under the leadership of faculty including Assistant Director Cortelyou C. Kenney, and for my part via FOIA expert Professor Margaret Kwoka at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  The brief asserts:

Petitioner [FMI] argues for sweeping changes to FOIA’s test for disclosure of confidential commercial information under Exemption 4 used by all Courts of Appeals for the past forty-four years, beginning with National Parks in 1974. Acknowledging that FOIA does not define the term “confidential,” the National Parks court held that the statute requires disclosure— notwithstanding a claim that the withheld records are confidential commercial information—absent a showing of either (1) impairment of the government’s ability to obtain necessary information in the future; or, as relevant here, (2) infliction of substantial competitive harm to the information submitter. 498 F.2d 765, 770 (D.C. Cir. 1974). That test has withstood the test of time. Any change should come from Congress, rather than this Court, because of the unusual context of FOIA, and the unusual context of this case.

Saliently, to my mind, the brief demonstrates congressional approval of the "substantial harm" test, and the FOIA ought not be reinterpreted contrary to its laudable aim of transparency.

As I have written recently in another context, the greatest threat around the world today to transparency and accountability might come from the private sector as surely as from the public sector.  There should be no question as to the need to maximize transparency where the two meet.  While FMI lobbies Congress and works through a Food PAC and "political education fund," certainly taxpayers are entitled to know what public subsidies are being delivered to FMI constituents.

Other signatories on the brief are: Ashutosh A. Bhagwat, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law, University of California, Davis School of Law; Michael C. Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law,
Cornell Law School; Heidi Kitrosser, Professor of Law, University of Minnesota Law School; Seth F. Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law; Margaret B. Kwoka, Associate Professor with Tenure, University of Denver Sturm College of Law; James O’Reilly, Retired Professor, University of Cincinnati College of Law; and Nelson Tebbe, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Court's strike against Mass. wiretap law for recording police raises bigger questions of 'right to receive,' freedom of information

The "right to receive" expression or information is the long neglected, often doubted, and sometimes maligned sibling of the freedom of expression.  While the First Amendment posits the expression of information that one possesses, the right to receive posits the acquisition of information as an essential prerequisite.  In other words, without access to information, the freedom of expression is meaningless.

By Khairil Yusof (CC BY 2.0).
More broadly conceptualized, the right to receive is an umbrella that covers a great many propositions in civil rights discourse, especially the freedom of information or access to information (FOI or ATI), and including also the right to news-gathering and "citizen journalism"; the right of access to meetings, libraries, and public facilities such as prisons; and, most recently, the right to record police.  Historically, American constitutional law widely rejected propositions in this vein, evidenced by the famously statutory U.S. Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, which nonetheless has exerted substantial influence in the advent of ATI as a constitutional and human right elsewhere in the world.

Modern information society has raised new challenges to the American constitutional rejection of a right to receive information and prompted the reexamination of right-to-receive propositions in the courts.  A new appeal has arisen in the logic that access is prerequisite to meaningful democratic engagement through the freedoms to speak, publish, assemble, and petition.  A fair piece of this reexamination has appeared in the case law surrounding the video-recording of police activity, spurred in part by news-media focus on police-involved shootings and subsequent Black Lives Matter and related protests. 

Conventional First Amendment law would have subsumed video-recording under the doctrine of no right to gather the news, thus compelling would-be recorders to obey police orders to stop upon self-serving public-safety rationales, and on pain of civil and criminal justice consequences for failure to comply.  But as electronic media technology has dissolved the distance between recording and public broadcast—the latter unquestionably constitutionally protected by the speech-core prior restraint doctrine—even American courts have been reluctant to find recording devoid of constitutional significance.

In December 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held the Massachusetts wiretap statute, a "two-party consent" law (see code; Digital Media Law Project), unconstitutional--facially, though in the limited, articulated circumstances of "the secret recording of police officers performing their duties in public, and the secret recording of government officials doing the same." The court, per Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, held:

On the core constitutional issue, the Court holds that secret audio recording of government officials, including law enforcement officials, performing their duties in public is protected by the First Amendment, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. Because Section 99 [Mass. wiretap] fails intermediate scrutiny when applied to such conduct, it is unconstitutional in those circumstances.

James O'Keefe speaks at 2018 Student Action Summit, West Palm Beach,
Florida, Dec. 21, 2018. By Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The ruling came upon joint consideration of two cases involving different partisan affilliations.  In one case, Boston-based civil rights activists K. Eric Martin and René Perez, supported by the ACLU of Massachusetts, sued under civil rights law to combat authorities' investigation of them for openly and secretly recording police activity in pedestrian and traffic stops and at protests.  A second case involved the conservative activist James O'Keefe and his Project Veritas Action Fund (PVA).  PVA sought to effect secret recordings, and not to be criminally prosecuted for them, in Massachusetts in a broader and intriguing list of scenarios:

  • "landlords renting unsafe apartments to college students;
  • "government officials, including police officers, legislators, or members of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, to ascertain their positions on 'sanctuary cities';
  • "'protest management' activities by both government officials and private individuals related to Antifa protests; and 
  • "interactions with Harvard University officials to research its endowment and use of federal funds."
As the court acknowledged, the First Circuit previously joined the majority trend in courts to recognize a constitutional right (subject to reasonable time-place-manner regulation) to record police in public.  Considering the extant threat of prosecution, the court found sufficient merit in plaintiffs' claims to survive ripeness review. 

C.J. Saris
The court then found that application of the law to recording public officials in their official capacity in public places could not survive First Amendment intermediate scrutiny: "narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest."  Following the First Circuit's example, the court ruled that accountability outweighed slimmer competing interests in public order and officials' personal privacy.  The court left to future cases to determine whether the rule here may be extended to recordings in private venues that are places of public accommodation, such as a restaurant, and to determine who besides police are "government officials."

The case is Martin v. Gross, No. 1:16-cv-11362-PBS (D. Mass. Dec. 10, 2018), available here from Courthouse News Service.  Hat tip to Michael Lambert at Prince Lobel and Christine Corcos at Media Law Prof Blog.

As the courts continue to struggle with right-to-receive cases, rejection of the "right" in American constitutional law becomes increasingly untenable.  A generation of rehearings on the question in the U.S. Supreme Court, and a consequent reshaping of the relevant First Amendment doctrine, seems inevitable.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Research proposes U.S. FOIA reform upon South African example

I've published in the Villanova Law Review, "Access to Information in the Private Sector: African Inspiration for U.S. FOIA Reform" (available from SSRN).  The article appears as part of a symposium edition of the law review (63:5) on FOIA reform.  The special edition commemorates 50 years of the FOIA, which was passed by Congress in 1966 and went into effect in 1967.  I was privileged to present the piece at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law in 2017, upon generous invitation to the Norman J. Shachoy Symposium.  Here is the foreword (footnotes omitted):
The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) was a landmark global example of transparency, or access to information (ATI), to ensure democratically accountable governance.  Government had grown in the twentieth century, especially in the new administrative state, and FOIA re-balanced the distribution of power between people and public authority.  Today in the twenty-first century, much power in American society has migrated from the public sector to the private sector, specifically into the hands of corporations.  Even insofar as it works well, FOIA operates only against the conventional state by enabling an individual’s capacity to realize civil and political rights.  FOIA simply was not designed to enable the attainment of human necessities such as education and housing, much less environmental protection and healthcare, especially when the greatest threat to those rights is not government deprivation, but the commercial marketplace.

ATI in Africa is a different story.  Three decades after FOIA, planted among the unprecedented ambitions of the South African constitution was a right to ATI.   And within that right lay an extraordinary new provision.  As guaranteed by the South African constitution and enabling law, a person may request records from a nongovernmental respondent, a private body, if the person can show that the records are “required for the exercise or protection of any rights.”   In other words, South African ATI law jettisoned the historic barrier between public and private sectors.  South African lawmakers were informed by the experience of apartheid, in which the private sector’s complicity had been a vital and brutal partner in state-sanctioned human rights abuse.
Blossoming beyond even the visioning of an apartheid remedy, ATI in the private sector has been construed by the courts in a wide range of applications, from intrafamilial business disputes to environmental conservation.  South African courts have struggled to define “required” and “rights” in applying the ATI law.  But South Africa has demonstrated that ATI in the private sector can work.  The public-private division justifies a change in the terms of access, but not an absolute barrier.  In the last five years, the South African approach has been reiterated in the domestic law of at least five other African countries and in pan-African human rights instruments meant to inspire more domestic adoptions.

In this article, I suggest that the African example inspire U.S. FOIA reform.  In its time, FOIA shone a light into the darkest corners of American politics.  Now America deserves a new approach to restore power to the people in the age of the corporation.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Villanova symposium seeks to rejuvenate 50-year-old U.S. FOIA

Panel 5 on global and comparative perspectives: moderater Fran Burns, professor of practice in the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University; Anamarija Musa, commissioner of information for the Republic of Croatia; Suzanne J. Piotrowski, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University-Newark; and the smiling village idiot.  Photo graciously provided by Catherine E. Wilson, associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Administration at Villanova University.


The week before last, the Villanova Law Review at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law hosted the Norman J. Shachoy Symposium on Fifty Years Under the Freedom of Information Act, 1967-2017.  I was privileged to participate and owe a debt of gratitude to Villanova for extraordinary hospitality, especially Law Review coordinators Jourdan Simko and Valerie Caras (current masthead); faculty coordinator Professor Tuan Samahon, himself an accomplished teacher and scholar in constitutional law and government transparency and accountability; and Arthur J. Kania Dean and Professor of Law Mark C. Alexander.

Persons with a broad range and wealth of experience and perspective on the federal FOIA participated in the symposium, offering a mind-boggling array of insights into the state of our 50-year-old transparency regime and its prospects for reform.  Professor Samahon aptly opened the conference by asking participants to think about how the course of history might have been different had transparency been the rule of the day before 1967, say, at the time of the Bay of Pigs or the Gulf of Tonkin.  What far-reaching impact would there be of transformed American involvement in those events?  The question points to historic mistakes and lives that might have been saved, yes; but also to unknown alternatives and dangers unwittingly averted.


The U.S. FOIA was among the first of its kind in the modern world and ground-breaking in its scope.  Professor Samahon later in the afternoon, asking a question of my own panel, pointed to the startling success of the FOIA, lest we take it for granted: a beacon of transparency and accountability in the world, the operationalization of an essential condition for a successful democracy, and a feature of government that is sorely wanting in so many countries today, with real human suffering as the price of opacity and corruption.

At the same time, program participants seemed in universal agreement:  Our FOIA is showing its age.  More dynamic transparency instruments in foreign and international law—incubated in the so-called “second-generation” constitutional and human rights systems of Western Europe and emerging democracies around the world—have made vast strides in government transparency and accountability, leaving our FOIA looking, to put it mildly, rather tired and worn around the edges.  Speaking a cutting truth, Judicial Watch attorney Michael Bekesha said in an afternoon panel that to really make FOIA work, the current statute, 5 U.S.C. § 552, needs to be “blown up,” and a new law constructed in its place.  My own talk looked to innovations in FOI, or "access to information" (ATI) in Africa for inspiration.

Villanova video-recorded the day-long program, and the Law Review plans a symposium issue with contributions from the panelists, to be published later next year.  So stay tuned for more on this important subject.  Meanwhile, I will paste below the program, to whet the appetite.

The Villanova Law Review Norman J. Shachoy Symposium:
Fifty Years Under the Freedom of Information Act, 1967-2017
Friday, October 20, 2017, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Welcome
  • Mark C. Alexander, Arthur J. Kania Dean and Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
  • Tuan Samahon, Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
Panel 1: The “On the Ground” Operation of FOIA
  • Susan Long, Associate Professor of Managerial Statistics and Director of the TRAC Research Center, Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University
  • Margaret Kwoka, Associate Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
  • Moderated by Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University-Newark
Panel 2: The Press, the Academy, and FOIA
  • David McGraw, Deputy General Counsel, The New York Times
  • Jason Leopold, Senior Investigative Reporter, BuzzFeed News
  • David M. Barrett, Professor of Political Science, Villanova University
  • Moderated by Terry Mutchler, Mutchler Lyons
Panel 3: Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch
  • Katy Rother, Senior Counsel, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives
  • Aram A. Gavoor, Visiting Associate Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School
  • Moderated by Catherine J. Lanctot, Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
Panel 4: Resolving FOIA Disputes
  • Alina Semo, Director, Office of Government Information Services, National Archives and Records Administration
  • Marcia Berman, Assistant Branch Director, Civil Division, Federal Programs Branch, U.S. Department of Justice
  • Michael Bekesha, Attorney, Judicial Watch, Inc.
  • Moderated by Margaret Kwoka, Associate Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Panel 5: State and Global Comparative Perspectives
  • Anamarija Musa, Commissioner of Information, Republic of Croatia
  • Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers University-Newark
  • Richard J. Peltz-Steele, Professor of Law, University of Massachusetts School of Law
  • Moderated by Fran Burns, Professor of Practice, Villanova University