50 Days of FOIA: Countdown to the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act

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On May 15th, a broad coalition of open government and accountability organizations and media outlets are launching a “50 Days of FOIA” campaign — counting down the days to the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on July 4, 2016. The campaign aims to highlight the importance of the FOIA, while promoting the passage of meaningful reform legislation that now has the potential to become law by the time the statute turns 50 in less than two months.

For nearly 50 years, the FOIA has empowered the public by providing access to information essential for democratic governance and accountability. The law has also been used as a critical tool used to make the public aware of countless acts of waste, fraud, and abuse. With documents obtained under FOIA, countless media outlets, watchdog groups and individuals have broken stories about the withholding of information about hazardous drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the IRS’ civil forfeiture program, mistreatment of veterans at the VA medical offices, overdue inspections of the United States’ aging infrastructure, use of immigrant detention centers to hold minors,corporate abuse, and much more.

Please join us in the campaign to celebrate FOIA and help ensure that the nation can celebrate FOIA’s 50th anniversary with a stronger and better statute that enhances the public’s right to know and ability to hold officials accountable.

Each day the campaign will feature FOIA stories or issues that correspond loosely to the categories below. Look for tweets from these groups – and others – using#50DaysOfFOIA:

Week 1: FOIA stories (successes, part I)
May 15-21 OpenTheGovernment.org @OpenTheGov

Week 2: FOIA Tech Advances
May 22-28  MuckRock @MuckRock

Week 3: FOIA Champions
May 29-June 4  American Society of News Editors @NewsEditors

Week 4: FOIA stories (bad/obstructive agency responses)
June 5-11  The National Security Archive @NSArchive

Week 5: FOIA Resources
June 12-18  Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press @RCFP

Week 6: Reform ideas (in the legislation)
June 19-25  Sunlight Foundation @SunFoundation

Week 7: FOIA stories (successes, part II)
June 26-July 2  The Sunshine in Government Initiative @sunshineingov

We invite participants to share these stories widely on social media – and to tweet your own contributions.

To participate in the campaign, follow the #50DaysOfFOIA and #FixFOIAby50hashtags.

Background on FOIA reform legislation:

For every breaking story and revelation made possible by the FOIA, countless others are undoubtedly buried as the law’s effectiveness sags under the weight of processing backlogs resulting from, among other things, a lack of resources and reliance on outdated technology, as well as inconsistent application in terms of disclosure and overbroad use of exemptions. The law, which was signed on July 4, 1966, is drastically in need of meaningful reform to bring it into the 21st Century.

Greater access to government information stands out as one of the few clearly bipartisan issues in Congress today, and House and Senate leadership have worked to push forward reform bills in both chambers. In addition to promoting the FOIA reform legislation, the 50 Days of FOIA campaign will share FOIA stories and resources, acknowledge FOIA advocates, highlight hopeful changes in access to information that we have witnessed over the last decade, and feature various tools that have emerged for filing and tracking requests.

The House Oversight and Government Reform bill (H.R. 653) was introduced by Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and co-sponsors Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). After succeeding Rep. Issa as Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut.) held hearings in June 2015 that highlighted the many ways that agencies are not fulfilling their FOIA obligations in the way that Congress intended. Following the hearing, Rep. Chaffetz worked closely with Rep. Cummings to amend H.R. 653, which passed the House by unanimous consent in January of this year.

The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337) was introduced in the Senate on February 2, 2015 by Senators John Cornyn (R-Tx.) Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Charles Grassley (R-Ia.). On May 6, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on FOIA that emphasized the agency shortcomings in the implementation of FOIA and other record preservation laws that hampers public disclosure and access to information. In March, OTG coordinated a letter with more than 40  and individuals committed to government openness and accountability thanking Senators Grassley, Leahy and Cornyn for their authorship of the S.337, and urging the earliest possible passage of the bill — which passed by unanimous consent on March 15th.

Both bills would strengthen FOIA by making the FOIA Ombudsman more independent, limit the “deliberative process” exemption to information held up to 25 years, codify the presumption of openness and pro-disclosure “foreseeable harm” standard for releasing information, and modernize agency technology by creating a single portal for agencies to accept FOIA requests (for more background, see Sunlight in Government Initiative, Fix FOIA by 50 Clearinghouse).

Additional Information:

OpenTheGovernment.org: Open government groups express support FOIA reform, and concern over carve-outs for the intelligence community

The Sunshine in Government Initiative: Fix FOIA by 50

Patrice McDermott: President should support open-government bills

Summary and full text of S.337

Summary and full text of H.R. 653

Originally posted at OpenTheGovernment.org