A Closer Look at the “Future of FOIA”

On Tuesday, July 13, during the Annual Meeting in Denver, AALL Government Relations Committee member Susan Nevelow Mart moderated a panel discussion on “The Future of FOIA” (J1). The program featured Miriam Nisbet, Director of the new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Employing an engaging, conversational style format, the speakers highlighted recent changes in FOIA and the important work of OGIS in mediating FOIA disputes and offering training to agencies. Ms. Nisbet thanked AALL for supporting the creation of OGIS as part of the OPEN Government Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-175) and ensuring that it was housed at NARA.

Ms. Nisbet gave an overview of the work that her office, which was established in September 2009, has been doing to help requestors and educate agencies, and her hopes to continue to expand outreach to members of the public and agencies. She explained that in this era of “information inflation,” it’s especially important to train agency personnel so that they can be more responsive to FOIA requests.

Ms. Weismann, a FOIA litigator, discussed some of the positive changes to FOIA under the Obama Administration. She noted that, “When Obama took office, it was like coming out of a very long, very dark tunnel.” OGIS, she said, “represents a bright spot on the FOIA horizon” and “fundamentally changes the relationship between the requestor and agency.”

Ms. Weismann discussed the excitement that open government advocates felt when President Obama released his Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act and Attorney General Holder followed up with guidance for agencies. However, she expressed her continued frustration  that while a lot of the pieces to improve FOIA have been put in place, there’s still a long way to go to change the culture of secrecy in government, even under the Obama Administration. For example, the Administration has continued to use some of the same arguments of the Bush Administration in several court cases with CREW, and initially refusing to disclose White House visitor logs. (The White House later changed its position and began posting online the records of visitors in September 2009.)

Susan Nevelow Mart has compiled a very valuable guide to FOI Resources on the Internet to help law librarians, academics and members of the public find more information about FOIA. It  includes links to the Web sites of agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations that host FOIA documents, as well as FOIA blogs and wikis. Thank you, Susan, for putting together this helpful resource and moderating this excellent program!

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

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