The 10th annual Sunshine Week, a celebration of the public’s right to see U.S. government records, was held March 15–21. The initiative—which encompassed the March 16 birthday of James Madison, who is known as the “father of the Bill of Rights”—featured events sponsored by individuals and groups that are interested in the public’s right to know about its government. Related legislative action occurred on both national and local fronts as well. Here’s a roundup of some of the highlights (and lowlights) from around the country.
What Is Sunshine Week?
“Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” according to the event’s About page. The 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) grants individuals the right to access government agency records. When a FOIA request is made, federal agencies must disclose the requested records, unless they are subject to one of several exemptions. These exemptions are meant to protect records whose disclosure might endanger national security, violate personal privacy, reveal privileged communications, or interfere with law enforcement. Today, the law requires that agencies respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days (barring “unusual circumstances”).
The federal government received 714,231 FOIA requests in fiscal year 2014 (Oct. 1, 2013–Sept. 30, 2014), about a 27% increase from fiscal year 2009. In the early years after FOIA’s enactment, reporters from mainstream news media organizations initiated the majority of FOIA requests, with agencies complying by providing paper copies of requested materials. Today’s requests are just as likely to come from advocacy groups, bloggers, corporate lawyers, researchers, and foreign nationals as they are from credentialed journalists. Recent documents can be supplied in electronic format, although searching email records or finding documents digitized years ago present their own set of challenges for those charged with responding to FOIA requests, in terms of time, manpower, costs, and availability of records on readily accessible servers.
Over the years, FOIA has been tweaked through amendments meant to ensure that agencies are responsive to requests. According to the Center for Effective Government’s most recent analysis of the 15 federal agencies that receive more than 90% of all FOIA requests, performance is improving, but two-thirds of these agencies still did not achieve a grade higher than D+ in overall performance. According to FOIA’s website, although about 42% of FOIA requests were released in full in fiscal year 2014 and about 49% were released in part, about 9% were denied. Complaints include increased processing time, rising fees, an overly complex and lengthy appeals process, and a backlog that stands at an all-time high (159,741 requests). According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), 422 FOIA suits were filed in federal district courts in fiscal year 2014 (compared to 372 in fiscal year 2013). Bureaucratic hurdles and costs associated with FOIA requests (for conducting records searches, photocopying documents, and hiring lawyers for redacting material and technical experts for analyzing data) are prevalent in many jurisdictions, with a result that some FOIA requests are abandoned (see articles from USA TODAY and News-Press).
State FOIA Laws
States have their own sets of FOIA laws. Fortunately, there are organizations to help navigate them:
- The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide keeps track of states’ open records and open meetings laws.
- The Sunlight Foundation has summarized transparency-related developments among state legislatures.
- FOIAdvocates offers a set of links to citations for states’ public records acts.
- The National Freedom of Information Coalition released a summary of recent developments regarding the cost of seeking access to information in 18 states.
Sunshine Week Events
For Sunshine Week 2015, the American Society of News Editors “developed a model open-government proclamation that can be used by citizens and community groups to fight for greater transparency in government as part of their Sunshine Week initiative.”
Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. released a video series on the National Security Agency (NSA) files. It is available on YouTube.
The American Library Association (ALA) and OpenTheGovernment.org celebrated the annual Freedom of Information Day on March 13 with a conference at the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, where the ALA presented Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) with the 2015 James Madison Award. It “honors individuals who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know how it functions.”
A list of events that took place throughout the nation during Sunshine Week, including conferences, workshops, and summits; forums and discussions; projects; awards; series of articles/stories; rallies; open houses; and luncheons, can be found on Sunshine Week’s website.
How the Federal Government Celebrated (Bright Notes)
Despite evidence of bipartisan support for FOIA reform, Congress failed to improve FOIA through legislation introduced in 2014, but it has another chance with the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, introduced in February. This bill would presume openness and prohibit withholding information, “absent ‘foreseeable harm’ to protected government interests. … Both bills would both impose a 25-year limit on the withholding of documents that the government asserts are part of an internal deliberative process” and “allow more room for judicial review” of record request denials. “Frequently requested records would be made available online.”
Congressman Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) chose Sunshine Week to introduce the Transparency in Government Act of 2015. The legislation targets “specific areas where transforming government information from disconnected paper-based and PDF documents into fully searchable open data will have the most impact.” Other bill provisions of note include Section 605, which requires “the IRS to expand e-filing to cover all non-profits and to both collect and publish non-profits’ 990 forms in a nonproprietary machine-readable format. …”
The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act was reintroduced during Sunshine Week 2015. It improves transparency and accountability in government spending and expands access to taxpayer-funded information while protecting classified research, royalty-generating works, and preliminary data, and would serve to codify the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s 2013 memo, Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research.
To ensure that all federal workers understand how to responsibly respond to FOIA requests, the Department of Justice chose Sunshine Week to release a new suite of training resources.
How the Federal Government Celebrated (A Not-So-Bright Note)
For some reason, the White House chose Sunshine Week to announce that the president’s Office of Administration would be exempt from records requests. Ill-timed as it was, along with other recent actions (or inactions) by the Obama administration to support open government initiatives (e.g., The Customs and Border Protection agency was ill-prepared for requests for immigration files, and the Department of State is now addressing a barrage of requests concerning former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails), this news probably leaves the current executive branch out of the running for “most open and transparent administration.”
Follow @SunshineWeek on Twitter for transparency and open government news throughout the year.