Showing posts with label freedom of information. Show all posts
Showing posts with label freedom of information. Show all posts

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Observers comment on Assange extradition hearings


My thanks to Assange Defense Boston for organizing the Massachusetts State House rally on February 20 (above). Assange Defense Boston posted on X a couple of clips of me (below). Read more about "Me and Julian Assange" and see my images from the event.

Here (and embedded below) is a webinar from the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights about the February 20 and 21 hearings in the UK High Court of Justice. And here (and embedded below) are discussions of journalists, diplomats, and others who were in the room for parts of the hearings.





Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Assange Defense Boston rallies at State House

The Boston Committee of Assange Defense rallied today at the Massachusetts State House.

At the rally today, I spoke about my experience with freedom-of-information law and read parts of a letter from U.S. law professors to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. The letter asks the U.S. Department of Justice to drop Espionage Act charges against Assange and abandon the request for his extradition from the UK. 

Freedom of the Press Foundation has more on the letter. My comments were based on, and the text of the letter can be found in, my February 16, 2024, post, "Me and Julian Assange."

The High Court in London heard arguments today that Assange should have a right to appeal to the courts over his extradition, which the British government has approved. Read more about today's proceeding from Jill Lawless at AP News. The case continues in the High Court tomorrow.  Protestors crowded on the street outside the London courthouse today.

Photos and videos by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The sun shines at the Massachusetts State House.












The group sets up.











The crowd grows.












Committee organizer Susan McLucas introduces the cause.












Victor Wallace speaks.












A letter in support is read from U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).













A speaker decries government secrecy. The s***-word might have been used.













A woman speaks to the intolerable cruelty of U.S. federal prisons.












Committee organizer Paula Iasella says that Assange is hardly alone in aggressive national security accountability, citing John Young's Cryptome.














Friday, February 16, 2024

Me and Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder battles extradition in UK courts

Julian Assange, 2014
CancillerĂ­a del Ecuador via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
I'm as close to a freedom-of-information absolutist as you'll find.

I've said that about myself. I stole the notion and adapted the line from a personal hero, the renowned Professor Jane Kirtley, whom I was privileged to meet first in her legendary tenure at the helm of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP). Professor Kirtley utters the line as a First Amendment absolutist, and she's right: I've met no one so thoroughly committed to a free press, and able to persuade you she's right to boot.

Access to information, or frustration over the lack thereof, when I was a university journalist was a major force that drove me to law school. I was a strident 23-year-old law student, a legal intern at the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) and a willing convert to the cause, when I first met Kirtley in person. 

It was the 1990s. Bill had cheated on Hillary, and Milli Vanilli's Grammy was revoked. I was well convinced that the world would be a better place if there were no secrets at all: if governments kept open books, and everyone walked around with their hearts on their sleeves. 

At the joint offices of the RCFP and SPLC, I had access to a closet that held all of the publications on freedom of information. I devoured them. I was ready to build my Utopia.

I'm as close to a freedom-of-information absolutist as you'll find. 

I still say the line. But I admit, sometimes now I say it with less conviction.

Yesterday on NewsHour, a cognition expert said that we experience an increase in compassion and empathy as we age. That's it, I thought. That's why the utterly fictional characters on This Is Us made me cry like it was my own family. That's why I'm no longer so confident in my absolutisms. It's biology, and I can't help it. I'm getting old and soft.

In 2006, I was still strong. I knew right from wrong. I was an absolutist terror. That was the year that WikiLeaks was founded. That was the year that Julian Assange came into my life.

Julian Assange and I are the same age, born just months apart and a world away, in 1971. By the time I learned of him, we were 25, and his biography made me feel like I'd been sitting on my hands watching the world go by. He had hacked NASA when he was a teen in Melbourne. He was charged with computer crimes by age 20. 

But he wasn't a ne'er-do-well; he obeyed a nascent code of ethics for a new, technological age. He is credited with originating "hacktivism." He showed what government, especially the U.S. military, was up to behind virtual closed doors. He was out to make the world better by pulling back the curtain. Unapologetic, radical transparency.

When Assange co-founded WikiLeaks in 2006, freedom-of-information absolutism was the ethos. Anyone in the world with access to secrets could pour them anonymously into Wikileaks's servers in Iceland: a deliberate jurisdictional choice for information laundering. The drop-box technology was sleek. The morality was a-, not im-. Wikileaks would publish it all. The democratic potential of the internet would be realized. All the citizens of the globe would judge. Brilliant.

There were remarkable successes. Notable was the "collateral murder" revelation, that U.S. soldiers had killed 18 civilians in a Baghdad helicopter attack in 2007. WikiLeaks also revealed the toll of friendly fire deaths, many of which had been covered up. Conclude what one would about the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the people whose lives were on the line, as well as families and voters back home, deserved to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of war. 

And it wasn't just about war. WikiLeaks had big banks in the crosshairs (2011, 2013). In 2016, a trove of records (e.g., Toronto Sun) revealed that Hillary Clinton campaign head John Podesta had called Bernie Sanders a "doofus" over his criticism of the Paris climate accord. Good to know.

But after the Iraq War apex, things had started to unravel. WikiLeaks knew a lot; maybe too much. Its revelations tested the as close to ... as part of my mantra. Absolutism's gloss started to tarnish. 

Is there really social good in forecasting troop movements, when soldiers would be slaughtered as a result? Even Julian Assange saw it: Unmasked middle eastern informants cooperating with western forces, and the informants' families, faced brutal retaliation by militias and dictators. It was hard to work the math on absolute transparency to make the benefits always outweigh the costs.

So in 2010, WikiLeaks forged an alliance with The Guardian, and later other news outlets. With absolutism baked into the technology, WikiLeaks had no way to sift information to ensure, quite literally, that people would not be killed as a direct result of publication. 

Journalists do know how to do that; that ethical balance, to minimize harm, is the very essence of journalistic professionalism. So WikiLeaks would turn some of its information over to journalists, who would screen for the rare but real need for confidentiality.

The collaboration was rocky, short-lived, and at best only partly successful. The missions of absolute transparency and journalistic judgment were not so easily reconciled. The story has been told many times, for example in Vanity Fair's 2011 "The Man Who Spilled the Secrets," and still is dissected in journalism schools

Fortunes changed for Julian Assange. Negative words such as "anarchist" and "seditionist" took the place of positive words such as "crusader" and "activist." Allegations of rape, which Assange denies vehemently, surfaced in Sweden, which sought Assange's extradition from the UK. Conspiracy theorists, who are not always wrong, alleged that the Sweden allegations were a ruse to bring about Assange's extradition to the United States, which had indicted him, from a jurisdiction that would accede more readily than England would.

In London, Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, where he lived for nearly seven years. Things got weirder. Why wouldn't they?, with Assange trapped in a physical building and a legal limbo. In rare public appearances, Assange looked rough: less his former satiny-minimalist fashion, slick mane, and lustrous confidence; more fist-shaking-old-man-in-a-robe, scraggly-beard, "get off my lawn" vibe. 

Eventually the Ecuadoreans grew weary of the house guest who wouldn't leave. They called the cops, literally. In 2019, Assange was arrested. He has been in London's high-security Belmarsh Prison since. The United States has asked the UK to extradite Assange to face espionage charges, and the UK has seemed pleased to offload a lightning rod.

Is the U.S. extradition request about prosecution or persecution? As media struggle to make sense of Julian Assange—"Visionary or Villain?"—all indications are that if he lands in the United States, sending him to the stockade, if not the gallows, will be a bipartisan cause. The shift in American political attitude these intervening years toward a troubling receptivity to authoritarianism has flipped the script on WikiLeaks in the public imagination.

Some 35 law professors, including me, on Wednesday signed a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) end its efforts to have Julian Assange extradited and that DOJ drop Espionage Act charges against him. I'll paste the text of the letter below.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has coordinated efforts on the Assange matter, issued a press release about the letter. Below is the foundation's three-minute video take.

Yesterday, the Freedom of the Press Foundation hosted a forum, "Jailing Journalists: The Assange Case and the Threat to Press Freedom" [update: posted Feb. 20]. The forum was geared to reach people who might not understand what's at stake and might not like Julian Assange. One does not have to like Assange nor applaud the publication of state secrets to worry about the implications of an extradition and Espionage Act prosecution for the First Amendment and the American Fourth Estate. 

Echoing just that worry, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) led off the forum. He has led lawmakers, he said, in asking the Garland DOJ to drop the charges and abandon the extradition. McGovern represents the Massachusetts Second Congressional District, which is a good chunk of the center of the commonwealth, west of Boston.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation forum revealed just how dangerous the situation has become for journalists in America, and how endangered might be some fundamental precepts of First Amendment law. One journalist commented in the forum that he has been sued by government for a prior restraint on the dissemination of lawfully obtained public records. This is basic Pentagon Papers stuff. But would the present Supreme Court uphold the sacrosanct no-prior-restraint doctrine?, forum participants asked.

When I met Jane Kirtley 30 years ago, that would have been a silly question.

Assange will have been in prison in London for five years this April. Beginning Tuesday next week, on February 20 and 21, the High Court of Justice in London will hear his case on a potentially dispositive procedural question. Previously, the British government approved extradition to the United States, and a lower court judge decided that that determination could not be appealed. So the subject of the hearing next week is to determine whether Assange may appeal the administrative disposition to the courts.

Boston Area Assange Defense plans a rally in support of Assange on February 20 (flyer above) at the Massachusetts State House. The group has been an active local organization advocating against prosecution of Assange. I publicized the organization's rally and forum last year. A demonstration is planned similarly at the UK Consulate in New York City on February 20 (flyer at left).


LAW PROFS' LETTER TO U.S. AG RE ASSANGE, ESPIONAGE ACT

February 14, 2024

The Honorable Merrick B. Garland Attorney General

Dear Attorney General Merrick Garland,

The undersigned law professors strongly urge the Department of Justice to end its efforts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States and to drop the charges against him under the Espionage Act.[FN1]

Our personal views on Assange and WikiLeaks vary, and we are not writing to defend them in the court of public opinion. But when it comes to courts of law, we are united in our concern about the constitutional implications of prosecuting Assange. As explained below, we believe the Espionage Act charges against him pose an existential threat to the First Amendment.

"[A] free press cannot be made to rely solely upon the sufferance of government to supply it with information."[FN2] Accordingly, the Supreme Court has correctly and repeatedly held that journalists are entitled to publish true and newsworthy information even if their sources obtained or released the information unlawfully.[FN3] Journalists have relied on sources who broke the law to report some of the most important stories in American history.[FN4] An application of the Espionage Act that would prohibit them from doing so would not only deprive the public of important news reporting but would run far afoul of the First Amendment.[FN5]

That is why last November, editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, and other international news outlets wrote in an open letter about the Assange case that "[o]btaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalised,our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker."[FN6] Additionally, top editors at The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and more have unequivocally condemned the charges against Assange as a direct threat to their own journalists’ rights.[FN7]

The Obama/Biden DOJ recognized as much in declining to prosecute Assange, reportedly due to “the New York Times problem,” i.e., the lack of a legal basis to prosecute Assange that could not also be used to prosecute the nation’s most recognizable newspaper.[FN8] That was, unfortunately, less of a worry for the Trump DOJ, but should deeply concern your office. 

The current indictment against Mr. Assange contains 17 counts of alleged Espionage Act violations, all based on obtaining, receiving, possessing and publishing national defense information.[FN9] The indictment accuses Assange of "recruit[ing] sources" and "soliciting" confidential documents merely by maintaining a website indicating that it accepts such materials.

Award-winning journalists everywhere also regularly "recruit" and speak with sources, use encrypted or anonymous communications channels, receive and accept confidential information, ask questions to sources about it, and publish it. That is not a crime—it’s investigative journalism. As long as they don’t participate in their source’s illegality, their conduct is entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment.[FN10]

The fallout from prosecuting Assange could extend beyond the Espionage Act and beyond national security journalism. It could enable prosecution of routine newsgathering under any number of ambiguous laws and untested legal theories.We’ve already seen prosecutors test the outer limits of some such theories in cases against journalists.[FN11]

The Justice Department under your watch has spoken about the importance of newsgathering and ensuring the First Amendment rights of reporters are protected, even when stories involve classified information. You have also strengthened the Justice Department's internal guidelines in cases involving reporters.[FN12] We applaud these efforts. But a prosecution of Assange under the Espionage Act would undermine all these policies and open the door to future Attorneys General bringing similar felony charges against journalists. 

We respectfully urge you to uphold the First Amendment and drop all Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange.

Sincerely,

Jody David Armour, Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law, USC Gould School of Law

Michael Avery, Professor Emeritus, Suffolk Law School

Emily Berman, Royce R. Till Professor of Law, University of Houston Law Center

Mark S. Brodin, Professor, Boston College Law School

Leonard L. Cavise, Professor Emeritus, DePaul College of Law

Alan K. Chen, Thompson G. Marsh Law Alumni Professor, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Carol L. Chomsky, Professor, University of Minnesota Law School

Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law Emerita, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Evelyn Douek, Assistant Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

Eric B. Easton, Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Baltimore School of Law

Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus, Princeton University

Martha A. Field, Langdell Professor, Harvard Law School

Sally Frank, Professor of Law, Drake University School of Law

Eric M. Freedman, Siggi B. Wilzig Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Rights, Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University

James Goodale, Adjunct Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law

Robert W. Gordon, Professor of Law, Emeritus, Stanford Law School

Mark A. Graber, Regents Professor, University of Maryland Carey School of Law

Jonathan Hafetz, Professor of Law, Seton Hall Law School

Heidi Kitrosser, William W. Gurley Professor of Law, Northwestern – Pritzker School of Law

Genevieve Lakier, Professor of Law and Herbert & Marjorie Fried Teaching Scholar, The University of Chicago Law School

Arthur S. Leonard, Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law, Emeritus, New York Law School

Gregg Leslie, Professor of Practice; Executive Director, First Amendment Clinic, ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Gregory P. Magarian, Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law, Washington University School of Law

Carlin Meyer, Prof. Emerita, New York Law School

Anthony O’Rourke, Joseph W. Belluck & Laura L. Aswad Professor, University at Buffalo School of Law

Richard J. Peltz-Steele, Chancellor Professor, UMass Law School

Jonathan Peters, Chair of the Department of Journalism and Affiliate Professor of Law, University of Georgia

Aziz Rana, Incoming J. Donald Monan, S.J., University Professor of Law and Government,
Boston College

Leslie Rose, Professor of Law Emerita, Golden Gate University School of Law

Brad R. Roth, Professor of Political Science and Law, Wayne State University

Laura Rovner, Professor of Law & Director, Civil Rights Clinic, University of Denver
Sturm College of Law

Natsu Taylor Saito, Regents’ Professor Emerita, Georgia State University College of Law

G. Alex Sinha, Associate Professor of Law, Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University

Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, Professor; Director of J.S.D. Program, University at Buffalo School of Law

Hannibal Travis, Professor of Law, Florida International University College of Law

Sonja R. West, Brumby Distinguished Professor in First Amendment Law, University of Georgia School of Law

Bryan H. Wildenthal, Professor of Law Emeritus, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Ellen Yaroshefsky, Howard Lichtenstein Professor of Legal Ethics, Maurice A. Deane School of
Law at Hofstra University

Signatories to this letter have signed in their individual capacities. Institutions are named for identification purposes only.

1. 18 U.S.C. §§ 792-798. 

2. Smith v. Daily Mail Publ'g Co.,443 U.S. 97, 104 (1979). 

3. See, e.g., Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001); Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 536 (1989); Landmark Commc'ns, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829, 830 n.1, 832 (1978); Okla. Publ'g Co. v. Okla. Cnty. Dist. Ct., 430 U.S. 308 (1977).

4. See, e.g., N.Y. Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 913 (1971) (per curiam).

5. Jean v. Mass. State Police, 492 F.3d 24, 31 (1st Cir. 2007) (Bartnicki barred liability for knowingly receiving illegal recording under criminal wiretapping statute).

6. Charlie Savage, Major News Outlets Urge U.S. to Drop Its Charges Against Assange, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2022.

7. Camille Fassett, Press Freedom Organizations and News Outlets Strongly Condemn New Charges
Against Julian Assange
, Freedom of the Press Foundation, May 24, 2019.

8. Hadas Gold, The DOJ's "New York Times" problem with Assange, Politico, Nov. 26, 2013.

9. 18 U.S.C. § 793; WikiLeaks Founder Charged in Superseding Indictment, Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, June 24, 2020.

10. Bartnicki, supra; Democratic Nat'l Comm. v. Russian Fed'n, 392 F. Supp. 3d 410, 436 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) ("Journalists are allowed to request documents that have been stolen and to publish those documents.").

11. Steven Lee Myers & Benjamin Mullin, Raid of Small Kansas Newspaper Raises Free Press Concerns, N.Y. Times, Aug. 13, 2023.

12. Charlie Savage, Garland Formally Bars Justice Dept. from Seizing Reporters' Records, N.Y. Times, Oct. 26, 2022.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Naming rape suspects may draw criminal charges for journalists under Northern Ireland privacy law

Bernard Goldbach via Flickr CC BY 2.0
In Northern Ireland, it's a crime for a journalist to identify a rape suspect.

The relevant provision of the country's Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act 2022. Attorney Fergal McGoldrick of Carson McDowell in Belfast detailed the law for The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog in October 2023, just after the law took effect.

The law applies to a range of sexual offenses including rape. The prohibition expires upon an arrest warrant, criminal charge, or indictment. If prosecution does not expire the prohibition on identification, it remains in force until 25 years after the death of the suspect. The act amended preexisting privacy law to afford comparable anonymity to victims.

I have deep experience with this issue, and it is fraught. Despite my strong preference for transparency in government, especially in policing, the law has merit.

I was a university newspaper editor back in ye olden days of paper and ink. My newspaper reported vigorously on accusations of sexual assault against a student at our university by a student at a nearby university. The accusations and ensuing criminal investigation gripped the campus.

We learned the identity of both suspect and accuser. We reported the former and concealed the latter. Discussing the matter as an editorial board, we were uncomfortable with this disparity. Having the suspect be a member of our own community and the accuser an outsider amplified our sensitivity to a seeming inequity. We did take measures to minimize use of the suspect's name in the reporting.

These were the journalistic norms of our time. Naming the accuser was unthinkable. This was the era of "the blue dot woman," later identified as Patricia Bowman (e.g., Seattle Times). The nation was enthralled by her allegation of rape against American royalty, William Kennedy Smith. In the 1991 televised trial, Bowman, a witness in court, was clumsily concealed by a floating blue dot, the anonymizing technology of the time.

Smith was acquitted. The case was a blockbuster not only for TV news, but for journalism, raising a goldmine of legal and ethical issues around criminal justice reporting and cameras in the courtroom.

There was no anonymity for Smith. I went to a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) conference around this time, and the issues were discussed in a huge plenary session in a ballroom. The crowd exuded self-loathing for the trauma journalism itself had piled on Bowman. Objectivity be damned, many speakers beat the drums for the pillorying of the acquitted Smith.

The calculation in journalism ethics with regard to Smith, and thus to my editorial board, was that police accountability, knowing whom is being investigated, charged, or detained, and public security, alerting the public to a possible threat, or eliciting from the public exonerating evidence, all outweighed the risk of reputational harm that reporting might cause to the accused. Moreover, ethicists of the time reasoned, it would be paternalistic to assume that the public doesn't understand the difference between a person accused and a person convicted.

Then, in my campus case, the grand jury refused to indict. Our reporting uncovered evidence that the accusation might have been exaggerated or fabricated.

Our editorial hearts sank. Had we protected the wrong person?

My co-editor and I discussed the case countless times in the years that followed. We agonized. It pains me still today. Thirty years later, I find myself still retracing the problem, second-guessing my choices. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure where you feel like you're making the right choice each time you turn the pages, yet your steps lead you inevitably to doom.

Idealistically committed as we were at that age to freedom-of-information absolutism, we were inclined to the anti-paternalistic argument and reasoned that probably we should have named everyone from the start and let the public sort it out.

In our defense, a prior and more absolutist generation of norms in journalism ethics prevailed at the time. I was there at SPJ in the following years as leading scholars worked out a new set of norms, still around today, that accepts the reality of competing priorities and evinces more flexible guidance, such as, "minimize harm." Absolutism yielded to nuance. Meanwhile, the internet became a part of our lives, and both publication and privacy were revolutionized.

So in our present age, maybe the better rule is the Northern Ireland rule: anonymize both sides from the start. 

I recognize that there is a difference in a free society between an ethical norm, by which persons decide not to publish, and a legal norm, which institutes a prior restraint. I do find the Northern Ireland rule troublesomely draconian. The law would run headlong into the First Amendment in the United States. Certainly, I am not prepared to lend my support to the imprisonment of journalists.

Yet the problem with the leave-it-to-ethics approach is that we no longer live in a world in which mass media equate to responsible journalism. From where we sit in the internet era, immersed in the streaming media of our echo chambers, the SPJ Code of Ethics looks ever more a relic hallowed by a moribund belief system.

In Europe, the sophisticated privacy-protective regime of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is more supportive than the U.S. First Amendment of the Northern Ireland approach. The UK continues to adhere to the GDPR regime since Brexit. The GDPR reflects the recognition in European law of privacy and data protection as human rights, to be held in balance with the freedoms of speech and press. Precisely this balance was at issue in 2022, in Bloomberg LP v. ZXC, in which the UK Supreme Court concluded that Bloomberg media were obligated to consider a suspect's privacy rights before publishing even an official record naming him in a criminal investigation.

McGoldrick wrote "that since Bloomberg most media organisations have, save in exceptional circumstances, elected not to identify suspects pre-charge, thus affording editors the discretion to identify a suspect, if such identification is in the public interest."

Maybe the world isn't the worse for it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Police reform shines light on disciplinary records

CC0 Pixabay via picryl
A favorable reform to follow the police protest movement of recent years, stemming in particular from the killing of George Floyd, has been transparency around police disciplinary dispositions.

There is room for disagreement over what police reform should look like. I'm of the opinion that it costs society more to have police managing economic and social problems, such as homelessness and mental health, than it would cost to tackle those problems directly with appropriately trained personnel. I wouldn't "defund" police per se, but I would allocate public resources in efficient proportion to the problems they're supposed to remedy. We might not need as much prison infrastructure if we spent smarter on education, job training, and recreation.

Regardless of where one comes down on such questions, there is no down-side to transparency around police discipline. Police unions have cried privacy, a legitimate interest, especially in the early stages of allegation and investigation. But when official disciplinary action results, privacy should yield to accountability. 

Freedom-of-information (FOI) law is well experienced at balancing personnel-record access with personal-privacy exemption. Multistate FOI norms establish the flexible principle that a public official's power and authority presses down on the access side. Because police have state power to deprive persons of liberty and even life, privacy must yield to access more readily than it might for other public employees.

In September 2023, Stateline, citing the National Conference on State Legislatures, reported that "[b]etween May 2020 and April 2023, lawmakers in nearly every state and [D.C.] introduced almost 500 bills addressing police investigations and discipline, including providing access to disciplinary records." Sixty-five enacted bills then included transparency measures in California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York.

The Massachusetts effort has come to fruition in online publication of a remarkable data set. Legislation in 2020 created the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission. On the POST Commission website, one can download a database of 4,570 law enforcement disciplinary dispositions going back 30 years. There is a form to request correction of errors. The database, at the time of this writing last updated December 22, 2023, can be downloaded in a table by officer last name or by law enforcement agency, or in a CSV file of raw data.

The data are compelling. There are plenty of minor matters that can be taken at face value. For example, one Springfield police officer was ordered to "Retraining" for "Improper firearm usage or storage." I don't see that as impugning the officer, rather as an appropriately modest corrective and a positive for Springfield police. Many dispositions similarly suggest a minor matter and proportional response, for example, "Written Warning or Letter of Counseling" for "conduct unbecoming"/"Neglect of Duty."

Then there are serious matters. The data indicate termination of a police officer after multiple incidents in 2021, including "DRINKING ON DUTY, PRESCRIPTION PILL ABUSE, AND MARIJUANA USE," as well as "POSING IN A HITLER SALUTE." Again, it's a credit to the police department involved that the officer is no longer employed there. Imagine if such disciplinary matters were secreted in the interest of personal privacy, and there were not a terminal disposition.

The future of the POST Commission is to be determined. It's being buffeted by forces in both directions. Apropos of my observation above, transparency is not a cure-all and does not remedy the problem of police being charged with responsibility for social issues beyond the purview of criminal justice.

Lisa Thurau of the Cambridge-based Strategies for Youth told GBH in May 2023 that clarity is still needed around the role and authority of police in interacting with students in schools. Correspondingly, she worried whether the POST Commission, whose membership includes a chaplain and a social worker, is adequately funded to fulfill its broad mandate, which includes police training on deescalation.

Pushing the other way, the POST Commission was sued in 2022, GBH reported, by police unions and associations that alleged, ironically, secret rule-making in violation of state open meetings law. Certainly I agree that the commission should model compliance in rule-making. But I suspect that the union strategy is simply obstruction: strain commission resources and impede accountability however possible. Curious that the political left supports both police unions and police protestors.

WNYC has online a superb 50-state survey of police-disciplinary-record access law, classifying the states as "confidential," "limited," or "public." Massachusetts is among 15 states in the "limited" category. My home state of Rhode Island and my bar jurisdictions of Maryland and D.C. are among the 24 jurisdictions in the "confidential" category.

"Sunshine State" Florida is among 12 states in the "public" category. In a lawsuit by the Tallahassee Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously in November 2023 that Marsy's Law, a privacy law enacted to protect crime victims, does not shield the identity of police officers in misconduct matters. (E.g., Tallahassee Democrat.)

Friday, September 15, 2023

£5.41m reg fine over energy traders' WhatsApps cautions attorneys also on retention, spoliation, FOI

Electrical pylons on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, England.
Mr T via Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0
The British gas and electric regulatory authority (Ofgem) fined investment bank Morgan Stanley £5.41m in late August for failure to record and retain traders' messages on WhatsApp.

News of the fine has shaken up the British compliance sector. The case should grab the attention of compliance attorneys, of course, but also corporate counsel and government attorneys throughout the Anglo-American legal system.

Wholesale energy traders discussed market transactions on WhatsApp on their personal devices. Rules on market manipulation and insider trading require that communications "relevant" to trading be documented and retained for Ofgem review; the messages were not.

The enforcement action therefore represents a wake-up call, but not a new standard. The case probably resonated for two reasons. First, employee use of personal devices for communication is increasingly common, if not expected, and it's difficult to police. Second, WhatsApp is known for its end-to-end encryption, a feature that makes it appealing to users, but incompatible with regulatory transparency.

I'm not a fin reg wonk, but it was those characteristics of the case that caught my attention. The enforcement action should remind corporate counsel that record retention requirements cut across devices and applications and can even follow employees home. Moreover, when records might be perceived reasonably to have potential relevance in future litigation, the cost of non-retention in spoliation can be steep.

Similarly, the enforcement action should remind government authorities that neither non-public location nor software-driven encryption countermands record retention and freedom-of-information laws. Transparency law was once vexed by problems such as proprietary access and private location; it is no longer. Just ask Hillary Clinton about her State Department emails or Donald Trump about his bathtub war plans.

The enforcement action is Ofgem, Penalty Notice: Finding That Morgan Stanley & Co. International PLC Has Breached Regulation 8 of the Electricity and Gas (Market Integrity and Transparency) (Enforcement etc.) Regulations 2013 (the REMIT Enforcement Regulations) (Aug. 23, 2023).

Monday, September 11, 2023

Ark. Gov swings again at state FOIA

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has proposed a bill to undercut the highly regarded transparency regime of that state's Freedom of Information Act.

I was at the Arkansas Capitol when a veritable mob of citizen opposition stopped an anti-transparency reform bill in the spring. Try, try again must be the Governor's m.o.

My friend and colleague Professor Robert Steinbuch testified effectively against the spring reform bill. Here he is telling Conduit News Arkansas why the newest incarnation is no good either.

UPDATE, Sept. 16. My understanding is that the bill was gutted this week. A substantially narrowed enacted version applies only to secret information about the governor's security detail. The matter was discussed on Arkansas Week.

Friday, May 19, 2023

NYPD seizes adorable dog, person too, in retaliation for video-recording in public, attorney-plaintiff alleges

A New York legal aid attorney was arrested, along with her dog, when she started video-recording police, and then she sued for civil rights violation.

Harvey (Compl. ¶ 36)
The NYPD messed with the wrong person. As the complaint tells it, Molly Griffard, an attorney with the Cop Accountability Project of the Legal Aid Society (Equal Justice Works), was walking her dog, Harvey, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn when "she saw police officers remove a young man from a bodega, and drag him around the corner where they lined him up with other young men against a wall."

Griffard began video-recording with her phone. After she crossed the street at an officer's instruction, she started writing down NYPD car plate numbers. An officer refused to give her his business card upon her request, the complaint alleges. Instead, the officer handcuffed Griffard and arrested her, taking her and Harvey into police custody. She was held at the 79th precinct for eight hours, while Harvey, a nine-year-old Yorkie, was held in the kennel.

Admittedly, what caught my attention in the case was not so much the facts, head-shaking inducing as they are, but the story of Harvey. Journalist Frank G. Runyeon, reporting for Law360, and NBC News 4 New York, also were enchanted.

Griffard and her attorney, David B. Rankin, of Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP, must have been conscious of Harvey's intoxicating adorableness, too, because they included gratuitous glamor shots in the complaint—as I've reproduced here. 

Harvey (Compl. ¶ 20)
At its fringe, the case might be said to implicate animal rights, or at least the rights of owners of domesticated animals. Courts in the United States and elsewhere in the world are coming around to the idea that domesticated animals such as cats and dogs have a value exceeding their market worth as personal property, especially in the area of tort damages when the animals come to harm.

Griffard make no such claim, though, rather using Harvey as evidence to demonstrate her emotional distress at being separated from him and being given no information about his whereabouts while they were held—and, between the lines, to tug at the heartstrings and demonstrate the utter absurdity of her arrest and detainment.

One paragraph of the complaint does allege that seven-pound "Harvey was traumatized by the incident and now takes medication to treat his anxiety disorder." And the count of unreasonable seizure points out that "Harvey missed his dinner."

The case is Griffard v. City of New York, No. 512993/2023 (Sup. Ct. Kings County filed May 2, 2023).

Monday, February 27, 2023

FOI seminar shines light on transparency research

In fall 2022, students in my freedom-of-information (FOI) law seminar produced another range of compelling research papers in which they inquired into hot issues in the law of access to government.

It's been my privilege to teach a law school seminar in FOI since 2004. For other teachers who might like to include FOI in the higher ed curriculum, my 2012 casebook and companion teaching notes are now available in full on my SSRN page. Please contact me if my contemporary syllabus or other materials can be of help. I teach the law of access broadly, from state law to federal, and in all branches of government. Students moreover are encouraged to pursue research projects in any vein of transparency and accountability, including access to the private sector, which has been a focus in my research, too.

In fall 2022, my students had the fabulous opportunity to participate contemporaneously in the online National FOI Summit of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC).  I'm grateful to NFOIC President David Cuillier and Summit Organizer Erika Benton for making our participation possible.

My fall class was joined by a number of guest speakers who vastly enhanced students' exposure to FOI law, research, and practice. I am especially grateful to Professor Alasdair Roberts, UMass Amherst, who joined us live to talk about all things FOI, from his classic book Blacked Out (Cambridge 2012) to the implications for transparency and accountability of the research in his latest book, Superstates (Wiley 2022).

I thank Professor Robert Steinbuch, Arkansas Little Rock, who joined us to discuss his tireless work as an advocate in the legislature for transparency. He now writes powerfully about transparency and accountability as a regular columnist for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and he is author of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (LexisNexis 8th ed. 2022). I thank Professor Margaret Kwoka, Ohio State, who took time away from her ongoing FOI research in Mexico to join us to talk about that work and her recent book, Saving the Freedom of Information Act (Cambridge 2021).

I also thank attorney Alyssa Petroff and current law student Megan Winkeler, who joined us via Zoom to talk about their FOI research.  An alumna of my FOI seminar (as well as Comparative Law) and now a judicial law clerk for the Maine Supreme Court, Petroff discussed her recent article in The Journal of Civic Information on access to information about private prisons in Arizona.  An alumna of my 1L Torts classes, Winkeler has four years' experience in negotiation and mediation training and currently is researching negotiated rule-making in administrative law.

Here are the students' ambitious projects.

Madison Boudreau, The Benefits and Drawbacks of Reform Targeting Police Misconduct. The movement to increase public access to police misconduct and disciplinary records has proven to be a beneficial and necessary step toward heightened transparency and accountability of police departments and officers. However, states that have taken strides to open up access to these records continue to grapple with the ongoing barriers to public access despite their efforts. States seeking to implement similar changes to their open records laws will benefit by remaining aware of potential drawbacks to access despite reform. In the absence of impactful reform that effectively mandates the disclosure of these records, police departments have shown to prefer to remain under a cover of darkness, their internal personnel procedures left unchecked. As a result, the cycle of police secrecy is bound to viciously repeat itself.

Aaron Druyvestein, The Rise of Vexatious Requester Laws: Useful Regulation or Evasive Government Practice? The concept of freedom of information allows anyone to request any agency record for any reason, a model that has been replicated around the world and celebrated as a necessity for promoting democracy. The underlying goals of FOI to promote accountability are contingent on the government providing a strong and efficient FOI system. However, with the dramatic increase in FOI requests in the country, brought about in large part by better utilization of technology in FOI processes, there has been an increase in the burden on administrative agencies as a result of excessive, repetitive, or vindictive FOIA requests. Since 2010, governments' responses to these burdensome requests have resulted in the creation of so-called vexatious requester laws, which are intended to mitigate the effect of these requests on agencies.

Critics of vexatious requester laws argue that the laws are nothing more than a feeble attempt by the government to undermine otherwise valid records requests under the guise of improving government efficiency and reducing requester harassment. Concerns have been expressed that the laws' reliance on ambiguous terminology such as "vexatiousness" will give agencies discretion to deny requests based on subjective and unverifiable agency determinations of the requester's intent or motives for requesting. This paper analyzes the rise and application of vexatious requester laws as seen in the three states—Illinois, Connecticut, and Kentucky—that have passed statutory provisions permitting administrative agencies to deny requests to vexatious requesters. In addition, this paper investigates the policy implications of such laws on the broader FOIA system.

Alise Greco, Read It Before You Eat It: An Explicatory Review of the 2016 Nutrition Facts Label and Balancing FDA Transparency with Consumer Comprehension and the Food Industry. As the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to ignore how drastically the American lifestyle has changed, especially with regard to diet and exercise. The Nutrition Facts Label (NFL), largely meant to influence and assist consumer decision-making for food and beverages, was last updated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2016. This paper explains the 2016 NFL regulation in greater detail in light of a current need by many Americans to make informed, healthier choices based on science rather than social media or misleading, corporate-designed packaging. The FDA is put under the microscope and evaluated on its ability to balance the needs of consumers to be provided transparent, useful information and the demands from industry to make a profit.

Nicholas Hansen, Only Those Who Count The Vote Matter: A Comparative Examination of Arizona and Federal Transparency Regulations Pertaining to Election Data and Procedure and Their Impact on Citizen Confidence in Democracy. This analysis details the protections afforded under the state of Arizona’s election data exemptions under both the Arizona Open Meetings Act and the Arizona Open Records Act, and provides comparisons to the protections afforded under similar exemptions provided at the federal level. Characterizations of the election data and procedural protections for both levels of government are offered, and examinations of what information is permitted for provision under FOIA requests substantiate these characterizations. This analysis proceeds with an understanding that examinations must be confined to information that is both the subject of and relevant to either historical or ongoing FOIA requests, rather than the information made available to the public through the procedures associated with courtroom disclosures. 

This author posits that Arizona’s trend toward enforcing relative transparency when courts are compelled to examine the efficacy and validity of local election procedures might serve as a model for states whose courts are less inclined toward making such information available to the public at large. Recent lawsuits, including those associated with the largely settled controversies alleged pertaining to the 2020 Presidential election, and those suits pertaining to the use of Dominion Voting System’s voting machines substantiate this advocacy.

This analysis concludes with a determination as to whether or not Arizona’s FOIA exemptions as they pertain to election data and procedural information inspire greater public confidence than those utilized at the federal level. Also offered are policy recommendations as to how the Arizona judiciary might be able to better handle future election data and procedural controversies by utilizing the already extant tools within the FOIA rules, as well as policy recommendations for legislative reform in other states and the federal level, should local legislators and Congress see fit to implement a more transparent, more accessible system of legal procedures to deal with future election controversies.

Mitchell Johnson, Transparency and Tragedy: How the Texas Public Information Act is Being Weaponized After Uvalde, Yet Can Be Used for Good. This comment examines the Texas "law enforcement exception" under the Texas Public Information Act (PIA) regarding the mandamus lawsuit that several media outlets filed to obtain records from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) after the Robb Elementary shooting on May 24, 2022. The paper focused on the DPS, and not on another law enforcement agency at the scene of the shooting on May 24, because of the actions of Colonel Steven McCraw. Colonel McCraw, the highest ranking official in the DPS, has provided inconsistent accounts to the public of what occurred on May 24. This comment also examines the specific exceptions that the DPS claims. The DPS claims that the records that are sought for disclosure are either (1) records relating to an active investigation, or (2) records that relate to the purposes of law enforcement. The DPS’s current utilization of these exceptions is not grounded in law. No criminal investigation is taking place because the shooter is deceased. Furthermore, while Colonel McCraw has stated that his agency is reviewing his troopers’ and rangers’ actions to determine whether there should be a referral to prosecutors, criminal charges might be futile because of governmental immunity. Also, many of the records requested pertain to "basic information" of a crime that must be disclosed under the PIA. Last, the comment proposes that the PIA should be amended to incorporate case law and create a "criminality showing" if a law enforcement agency wishes to withhold documents under an active investigation exception.

Ashley Martinez-Sanchez, The New Jersey Open Public Records Act and the Public Interest in a Narrow Statutory Interpretation of the "Criminal Investigatory" Exemption. The New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) expresses a strong public policy in favor of open and transparent government. OPRA champions the idea of a citizen's right of access to government records to ensure an informed public. However, transparency is not absolute. The OPRA permits secrecy for ongoing law enforcement investigations.  Courts should narrowly read the "criminal investigatory" exemption. This paper analyzes the evolution of the exemption over the years. It further examines what the future looks like for it in the legislative and judicial context.  I reference New Jersey case law and recent events in the state to contextualize the importance of narrowly reading the exemption. Inversely, the paper suggests that a narrow interpretation of the exemption not only would impede transparency efforts, but would raise civil rights concerns, particularly for marginalized and vulnerable communities in New Jersey. 

Marikate Reese, Police Accountability: Does it Really Exist? This paper demonstrates the power of police unions, and their contracts, in limiting accountability, transparency, and access.  The contracts are the catalyst to shielding officers from disciplinary actions, limiting civilian oversight, and restricting access to misconduct records. While states, such as New York, have become more transparent with their records, the unions still dictate a large part of police procedure.  This procedure includes, but is not limited to, delay of officer interrogations, obstructing investigations of misconduct, and destroying disciplinary records.  The procedures are safeguards put in place by collective bargaining practices, law enforcement bills of rights, and civil labor law protections.  The overall purpose of these safeguards is to establish rights, protections, and provisions for law enforcement officers including the arbitration process, training standards, and process of investigation. This paper provides a brief coverage of the protections afforded by collective bargaining, police bills of rights, and civil labor laws that stand in the way of the public transparency barriers and racial injustice.  Furthermore, this paper addresses how these procedural protections limit accountability while taking a look at the existing laws among various states.  This paper suggests several ways states have made strides for accountability and what limitations might arise as a result.

James Stark, What's the Deal with Doxing? Doxing is an entropic issue plaguing today’s society. Defining what it means to be “doxed” has been a problem that’s compounded by the fact that not all forms of doxing are equal. Some play a useful role in public discourse, while other forms of doxing enable harassment of private citizens. The current anti-doxing laws can be summed up in three categories. First are the “incidentals,” which tend be older laws that just incidentally happen to address doxing in some way due to the language used. The second category is “Daniel’s Law,” which is a law that has picked up traction for trying to protect public officials from doxing and its harms. Lastly are the “general” statutes, which were crafted to specifically fight doxing in general and protect as many people as possible from doxing. In order to properly combat doxing, legislatures need to agree that doxing is the unwanted release of personal or identifying information about an individual as a form of punishment or revenge, and that it can affect anyone, in government or not. The legislatures must focus on creating “general” statutes, and tailor the laws to protect the individuals, while allowing discourse around public officials. A poorly written anti-doxing law will result in either censorship or inadequate protection of individual Americans.

Marco Verch Professional Photographer via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Chad Tworek, Public But Private Athletic Departments. This paper address the Florida state policy that allows public universities to designate their athletic departments as private, thus evading the records requests for which compliance is required for any other public agency. In Florida, there are athletic departments at public universities that are private. While they are not funded by the university, they still act as an agent of the university and are afforded the same protections as public universities. If anyone is to sue these departments and seek to claim damages, there is a statutory cap on damages, $200,000. The cap pertains because courts find them to be mere components of the public entities they serve. Yet protection from public records requests allows these departments to accumulate money in secret and to spend without accountability. Such organization of athletic departments is moreover occurring elsewhere in the United States. The impact is to keep the public in the dark about how these arms of government do business.