Experts: Citizens can access more government info via FOIA reforms

President Obama signs the The FOIA Improvement Act on Thursday to limit the reasons the government can use to refuse to release public records, and improve the processes for responding to information requests. (Photo by The Associated Press)

David Cuillier

New amendments to the Freedom of Information Act signed into law should help citizens find out more about the federal government.

“This is a good day for the public,” said David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, who researches access to government information. "We now have a stronger FOIA law to empower citizens in finding out what their government is up to. ”

UA James E. Rogers College of Law professors Jane Bambauer and Derek Bambauer both said the FOIA Improvement Act (S.337), signed into law by President Obama on Thursday, June 30, is an important advancement to help citizens hold their goverments accountable.

“The act is far from perfect ­– it does not include any additional funds to help agencies respond more quickly and effectively to requests – but it is a good start for reform,” Derek Bambauer said.

July 4 is the 50th anniversary of the FOIA.

The three UA researchers said the FOIA Improvement Act enables several benefits for those requesting federal documents:

  • Online portal. The act updates FOIA for the internet age. Citizens will be able to go to one website to submit FOIA requests, simplifying and streamlining the process.
  • Presumption of openness. Under the law, it is now presumed government information is open to the public unless there is a specific law that says otherwise. That will help citizens in challenging illegal public records request denials.
  • Reduction of fees. The act seeks to make agencies more responsive to FOIA requests, such as by preventing them from imposing fees for producing records if the agency misses its deadline for responding.
  • Limits to arbitrary denials. The changes limit the ability of the government to keep information secret under FOIA's exemption 5 regarding internal deliberations.
  • Stronger citizen advocacy. The Office of Government Information Services, which helps citizens with their requests, is given stronger powers and prohibits meddling by federal agencies.
  • Alternative to costly and complicated litigation. The act offers mediation services for people whose requests are disputed by an agency.

Cuillier, a former journalist who serves on the National Freedom of Information Coalition, testified before Congress in 2014 outlining the problems of FOIA and met with the White House press secretary in December to discuss freedom of information issues.

“These changes address a lot of the concerns raised by journalists and others over the past few years,” Cuillier said. “We still have more work to improve the process, to help ensure our government is accountable to the public.”

Also, Jeannine Relly and Carol Schwalbe, both associate professors in the UA School of Journalism, analyzed 60 years of congressional testimony, finding that corporations lobbied to alter the scope of the FOIA.

The researchers detailed their findings in an article, “How Business Lobby Networks Shaped the U.S. Freedom of Information Act: An Examination of 60 Years of Congressional Testimony,” to be published in a forthcoming issue of the academic journal, Government Information Quarterly.

The FOIA is held as a model for other nations adopting public record laws.

However, Cuillier said the law has fallen behind many other countries. By some ratings, U.S. FOIA is weaker than dozens of other nations' FOIA laws, including those in Mexico, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Cuillier visited Sweden this summer to study its FOIA law, the world's first, enacted 250 years ago.

“Americans need to stay vigilant in making sure government remains transparent,” Cuillier said. “These laws are crucial for us to know about the state of our drinking water, how our taxes are spent, and what our elected officials are up to.”

The White House released a statement:

Published Date: 

07/01/2016 - 9:45am