A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

FOI In-Brief

By Quill


Steven Garfinkel, retiring director of the federal office that oversees government classification efforts, told federal Freedom of Information personnel that an agency’s reputation for openness reflects the personalities of its access professionals far more than it hinges upon the language of the law.

Garfinkel, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, told the American Society of Access Professionals during its annual symposium in Washington, D.C., in December that he learned early in his career that some agencies were far more likely to be in court than others.

Most government agencies established reputations as either pro- or anti-openness within only a few years of the FOI Act’s enactment, Garfinkel said.

He cited the departments of Defense and State as agencies that supported openness early on. He said the departments of Agriculture and Treasury are less open.

In most instances, it was not the law that created those impressions, but the individuals inside those agencies handling requests and appeals, he said.

During the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, Garfinkel coordinated efforts to reduce over-classification of government records. He was instrumental in the drafting of the 1995 executive order that changed classification procedures, according to a story posted on the Web site of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, both federal and state governments have tried to limit access to public records, The Associated Press reported.

The Bush administration, tightlipped before the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings, has clammed up even more as it goes about tracking down those who would do America more harm, according to the AP. In the process, advocates of government openness and civil liberties say the public’s right to information and the freedoms of innocent people are being jeopardized.

Several state legislatures have considered or passed measures restricting access to government records or facilities.

However, Americans don’t seem to care much about threats to their right to access government information, wrote Joe Adams in a December 2001 Presstime article.

“State lawmakers are closing public records at an alarming pace, often without even a shrug from those with the most to lose – ordinary citizens,” Adams wrote. These are gloomy times for sunshine-law advocates, he said.

“In state after state, lawmakers use privacy concerns as a blanket license to shutter records long thought to be safe from exemption,” he said. “In Florida alone this year, lawmakers devised at least 134 bills to close access to documents.”


The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with several historians and public-interest groups, filed a lawsuit Nov. 28 urging the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to block a presidential order that they say illegally limits access to records of former presidents.

The lawsuit also demands the immediate release of more than 68,000 documents from the Reagan administration, according to a story posted on the Web site of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The records include correspondence between Reagan and his advisers and were due to be released 12 years after Reagan left office. However, an executive order from President Bush put the scheduled release of the records on hold indefinitely.

Records from the Reagan White House and from subsequent administrations originally fell under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a post-Watergate measure that became law after former President Richard Nixon attempted to hold on to his papers and tape recordings as personal property. The act made presidential records government property, with the law mandating that the records become public after 12 years.


When the state of Iowa introduces its court information online access system, it plans to make most of its data available for free. However, it will charge $25 each month for users seeking more detailed information, according to an article on the Newsbytes Web site.

The charge will apply to various court judgment information, as well as liens filed with the court and trial court scheduling, said Rebecca Colton, a spokeswoman for the Iowa State Supreme Court. She said that the fees likely would be paid by attorneys, abstractors doing real estate information searches, larger news media organizations and private detectives.

For one-time or infrequent users, the court system would charge for one month of use, during which time the user could come back an unlimited number of times, Colton said.

The court system currently provides limited information, which is available only on terminals in Iowa courthouses.


In a groundbreaking legal opinion issued in the fall, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson said that electronic messages between state agencies and local governments are subject to the Oklahoma Open Records Act. The opinion, announced Nov. 9 at the First Amendment Conference at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, was requested by Susan C. McVey, director of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.

Edmondson said electronic messages between state agencies and between state and local governments fall under the state law that requires public records to be preserved and available for inspection and copying.

Spokesman Gerald Adams said it is the first opinion issued by Oklahoma’s attorney general that specifically addresses e-mail.

The Associated Press reported that Edmondson cited language in the state law that defines a public “record” as any document “regardless of physical form or characteristic.” As such, he said e-mails must be treated as other records under the Records Management Act, which prohibits government agencies from destroying documents unless they have “no further administrative, legal, fiscal, research or historical value.”

The opinion stated that it is the responsibility of both the sender and receiver to save electronic e-mails between agencies. It said an agency may allow access to data in an electronic format so long as the system is secure enough to preserve the records and safeguard them from destruction or alteration.

If the records contain information that is required to be kept confidential, an agency must provide a format that allows for redacting the confidential material.