When attendees at the SPJ National Convention came to hear about “FOI and the Public Eye,” they came away with a full plate of resources and challenging perceptions. Attorney Dave Bahr of Eugene, Ore., led off. Bahr and his law partner, Dan Stotter, run a small public interest (but for-profit) law office in Eugene. After fielding calls from people with elementary questions about state and federal freedom of information laws, Bahr and Stotter decided to create a new FOI Web site earlier this year to help educate people about access laws and their rights. “FOIAdvocates.com” offers clients and other people access to basic information about the federal Freedom of Information Act, plus links to state access laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The information Bahr and Stotter offer to people isn’t new. But it is remarkable because it’s offered free of charge by a for-profit (albeit public interest) law firm. Bahr walked the audience through his firm’s Web site, explaining how the site can help someone learn the language of state and federal laws, file a request for information, understand fee waivers, and contact the firm for help in litigation. (After all, we’re talking about a law firm that’s in business to make money.) To explore the Bahr and Stotter site, visit www.FOIAdvocates.com. Once Bahr was finished, Bill Chamberlin, of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center, demonstrated the Center’s latest research project. When complete, the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project will offer a comprehensive and qualitative analysis of access laws in all 50 states. Chamberlin explained that a select panel of FOI authorities across the country is rating different aspects of state laws, including things like constitutional provisions and access to computerized records. The ratings range from “Sunny” (completely open) to “Cloudy” (completely closed), with several ratings in between. Visitors will be able to see how the experts rated individual laws. They also can compare any two states’ provisions or see the range of how all 50 states fared on a single criterion. The project is only partially complete, said Chamberlin, but the Brechner Center opted to launch its site in October with partial results. It will fill in data as it becomes available. The site will be accessible by late October at www.cap.org. The session’s final presentation also was its most challenging – and pessimistic. Susan Dente Ross teaches journalism at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and doubles as SPJ’s Project Sunshine Chair in that state. As civil libertarians worry about a loss of freedom in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ross told the audience that the federal government already has been suspending certain civil rights for certain criminal suspects for the past five years. Ross spoke specifically about the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Under the AEDPA and similar federal regulations, she said, the INS has indefinitely detained without charges at least two dozen Arabs, mostly Palestinians, based on information from foreign states or secret evidence allegedly linking the detainees to terrorists. Ross said journalists must bear some responsibility for its success, because they have not reported on it to the public. The central importance of FOI has increased in recent weeks, she said, as reporters have sought government accountability for apparent intelligence and security lapses. She added, however, that the increased attention to FOI serves to underscore historical negligence by citizens and journalists alike. Ross also believes that Americans in general – and journalists in particular – should be vigilant about the ramifications of new anti-terror legislation. Current objections by the media and members of Congress to sweeping expansion of government power to order surveillance, wiretaps and detention are long overdue, Ross said. When journalists in the audience asserted that now is not the time for the media to be shrill in their criticism of government, Ross suggested that freedom of the press is never as critical as during times of crisis.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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