Bringing a Focus on the Freedom of Information Act – February 18, 2014 Newsletter

In This Issue:
News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Bringing a Focus on the Freedom of Information Act
II. Groups Meet with Administration's Open Government Working Group
III. Coalition for Court Transparency Launches

News from Coalition Partners & Others


Save the Date for Coalition Partner Sunshine Week Events!

Friday, March 14, 8:30am-afternoon: National Freedom of Information Day Event
Location: Newseum
Sponsors: OpenTheGovernment.org, the Newseum Institute, American Association of Law Libraries, Association of Research Libraries, Center for Effective Government, Project On Government Oversight, Special Libraries Association, Sunlight Foundation

Tuesday, March 18th, 9am-6pm: Seventh Annual Freedom of Information Day Event
Location: American University Washington College of Law
Sponsors: Collaboration on Government Secrecy

Wednesday, March 19th 6pm-7:30pm: DC Open Government Coalition Event
Location: National Press Club

I. Bringing a Focus on the Freedom of Information Act

Over the past few months, OpenTheGovernment.org has been working to bring a renewed focus to how the open government community can work together to address some of the major issues with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As anyone who has ever filed a FOIA request likely recognizes, despite Congress' most recent amendments to the FOIA (in 2007 and 2009) and initiatives by the Administration to improve FOIA, the process continues to be filled with delays and agencies are using over-broad interpretations of FOIA's exemptions to withhold information.

There are a number of ways the community can address FOIA's problems: for example, we can work with the Administration and individual agencies; we can lobby for new changes to the law; and we can sue the government for not complying with the law. Generally, though, organizations tend to "specialize" in one or a few of these differing tactics. In October 2013, we brought together advocates, journalists, litigators, and others together for a FOIA Summit. The purpose of the event was to determine what are the biggest problems with the FOIA to be addressed and what are our goals, and to craft plans to make the system work better for requesters.

Prior to the event, our organizing committee identified twenty-one potential topics to discuss during the Summit, and asked attendees to "vote" for what issues they would like to see on the final agenda. The list of possible topics included those purely concerning FOIA and related issues that prevent the public from having timely access to government records like over-classification and records management. You can see a full list of the proposed topics here. Attendees ended up discussing eleven issues over the course of the day and a half, and created six action plans. The plans address: the Office of Government Information Services, proactive dissemination, exemption 5, overclassification and exemption 1, records management, and the Department of Justice's litigation stance. Notes from the planning sessions, and pictures from the event, are available here. We set up list servs to keep attendees who expressed an interest in continuing to work on the issues in touch with each other.

In January we also brought together a small group of representatives from organizations that work frequently with OGIS or were involved in the legislation that created the office with OGIS staff. The meeting was convened to permit an in-depth discussion about differing visions of, assumptions about and expectations for the office. The number of people invited to the meeting was limited both to encourage a free exchange of ideas and to make sure all attendees – both from the FOIA community and OGIS—had an opportunity to share their views. We also occasionally hold brown-bag meetings with OGIS to provide outside stakeholders with an opportunity to share their views on how OGIS can achieve its strategic goals and serve its mission. Please email info@openthegovernment.org to join the brown bag series.

II. Groups Meet with Administration's Open Government Working Group

Last Wednesday more than 20 outside stakeholders joined the regular meeting of the Administration's Open Government Working Group to discuss the new open government plans agencies are expected to create this year. During the meeting, we discussed some basic guidelines pulled together by the Center for Effective Government identifying what outside organizations would like to see in these plans. These include clearly defined goals and plans for improving FOIA performance and making more information available. We also discussed a set of "Open Government Community Challenges," issues faced by all or many agencies that prevent the government from being more transparent and accountable. We encouraged agencies to work together to tackle these challenges in their new open government plans.

The Open Government Working Group, which includes senior officials from several agencies, has been meeting monthly to discuss open government issues for several years. According to Administration officials, they plan to begin opening these meetings to outside stakeholders on a quarterly basis.

III. Coalition for Court Transparency Launches

Today, OpenTheGovernment.org joined several media and civil society groups to form the Coalition for Court Transparency, a group calling on justices to allow cameras to televise oral arguments.

When high profile cases reach the country’s highest court, the lines to view the arguments seem to stretch endlessly. There are only about 400 seats in the Supreme Court, so even those able to wait in line are often shut out. The Court only releases same-day audio for select cases, so the public must rely on written transcripts or wait until the end of the week, when the audio is posted online.

The Court has not allowed cameras in the courtroom because some claim it would make the process confusing for the public or would encourage grandstanding. In contrast to the Supreme Court’s hesitancy, all 50 state supreme courts permit some recording, and on the federal level the Judicial Conference of the United States has placed cameras in 14 federal courts as part of a pilot program to study the effect of broadcasting court proceedings.

To learn more and sign the petition to allow cameras in the Supreme Court, visit openScotus.com.

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