A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

FOI In-Brief

By Quill

Government juggles access, security

When it comes to viewing public records since Sept. 11, the pendulum has swung from presumed access to tougher standards over which kinds of federal and state records can be released, lawyers and journalists said in June at the National Freedom of Information Conference in Orlando.

The two major newspaper editor associations – American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the Associated Press Managing Editors association (APME) – have recognized the trend as well and have joined forces to express alarm over increased government secrecy, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In addition, the two groups want to help the U.S. public better understand the values of an informed society, The Associated Press reported.

Leaders of ASNE and APME met in Atlanta in June to consider ways to deal with the increasing tendency of governments to withhold information and to make previously available records secret. The group was told that state and local governments, school boards and town councils also were trying to keep things under wrap.

State lawmakers in at least 20 states have responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by drafting more than 1,200 bills, according to the report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which was released April 18.

The bills that have been or are being considered in state legislatures have proposed tightening security by limiting access to information such as utility blueprints, threat assessments and emergency response plans.

Many states, including Louisiana, Michigan, Florida, Idaho and Oklahoma, have passed antiterrorism bills that restrict access to certain records.

“The FOI issue has grown significantly in importance since 9-11,” said Douglas Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and head of the ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee. “Yet in times such as these, an informed public is essential to the democratic process.”

However, while some state leaders pushed to drastically restrict public access to government records after Sept. 11, many of the laws passed since the attacks have turned out to be compromises supported by free-speech advocates.

“The security of people and buildings are a legitimate concern of government,” said Mitchell Pearlman, executive director of Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission. “On the other hand, it’s fundamental to a democratic society to maximize the information people can get a hold of.”

Records: FBI harassed faculty, students

The outcome of a 17-year legal challenge brought by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter under the Freedom of Information Act has shown that the FBI, working covertly with the CIA and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, spent years unlawfully trying to silence the voices and careers of students and faculty deemed subversive at the University of California.

For years, the FBI denied engaging in such activities at the university. But the agency was forced to release more than 200,000 pages of confidential records covering the 1940s to the 1970s, the newspaper reported in a special section on June 9.

Those documents describe the sweeping nature of the FBI’s activities, which went far beyond the campus and into state politics, according to The Associated Press.

In an unsuccessful battle to keep the records secret, the FBI had said its actions had been proper and that it had merely tried to protect civil order and national security during a time when the nation feared communism and waged war in Vietnam.

“Things are done a lot differently today,” FBI spokesman Bill Carter told the Chronicle. “The files speak for themselves.”

In the 1970s, the broad outlines of the illegal FBI campaigns became public. At that time, Congress was holding hearings that showed the FBI and CIA had disrupted the lives of law-abiding citizens and organizations engaging in legitimate dissent.

The documents obtained by the Chronicle show just how extensive these activities were in California, how dissenters were targeted, and how eagerly Reagan worked to quash protests, the AP reported.

Bishops ban Globe reporters

Roman Catholic Church officials banned reporters for The Boston Globe from live sessions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in June, citing the newspaper’s decision to publish a draft of the clergy sexual abuse policy before its formal release.

“Yes, that’s the reason,” Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, director of communications for the conference, told the newspaper. “It was a decision made by the executive staff.”

The Globe lodged a protest.

“The bishops conference singled out the Globe for punishment solely because we did our job as journalists,” Editor Martin Baron said. “We obtained a copy of the bishops’ draft policy on sex abuse from an independent source, and we published the contents before the bishops formally announced it.”

The draft of the policy, which was released in mid-June, proposed that abusive clergy in the future be given a second chance under certain conditions, according to The Associated Press.

Conference leaders did allow a Globe photographer brief access to the conference room, The Associated Press reported.

In January, The Globe’s stories on the case of a former priest who had been moved from parish to parish by church authorities despite allegations of pedophilia brought national attention to the scandal.

Criminal court records go online

In an unprecedented move, the federal judiciary’s policymaking body said in May that it would allow limited public access to criminal court records on the Internet.

Eleven federal courts are allowing Internet access to criminal case files as part of a pilot program adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, a panel of 27 federal judges responsible for crafting policy in the federal court system.

In September, the conference approved a plan to continue offering Web-based access to civil and bankruptcy filings, as long as certain personal identifying information, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and account numbers, is omitted.

At that time, however, the Judicial Conference decided to prohibit Internet access to criminal files out of concern for the safety of law enforcement officers and to safeguard the identity of key witnesses and informants, according to The Washington Post.

The Federal Judicial Center will track the courts during the course of the pilot project and then will report its findings when the Judicial Conference looks at the issue again in September 2003.

Officials bar journalists from collapsed bridge

One reporter was handcuffed and detained, and other members of the news media said they were threatened and hassled by authorities while covering the collapse of the Interstate 40 bridge near Webbers Fall, Okla.

Photographers and reporters, including the one placed in handcuffs, blamed the inexperience of small-town law officials for a series of obstacles blocking the reporting of the May 26 bridge collapse that killed at least 14 people.

After a barge struck the bridge, journalists who came to the small town to report on the story suddenly faced various hurdles in covering the disaster, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Police handcuffed Sheila Stogsdill, a stringer reporter for The Oklahoman, and took her to the police station without explanation two days after the accident.

Law enforcement officers also threatened to arrest two Associated Press reporters at least four times.

Tulsa television reporters were warned about filming near a public road.

And the Tulsa Medical Examiner’s Office barred a Texas television reporter from public land and threatened the journalist with arrest.

Overall, reporters and photographers on the scene have been treated like “enemy Number One,” said Sue Hale, executive editor of The Oklahoman.

“Our reporters and photographers are just trying to do their jobs,” she added. “This is not Afghanistan. This is the United States, and access to public parks is protected by the First Amendment.”

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating even admitted that police went too far in restricting access to the site and information about victims. He said that the town’s mayor offered an apology.

Print and broadcast reporters were kept in a parking lot nearly two miles from the accident scene and two miles from the town, The Associated Press reported.