Here’s a worthy New Year’s resolution for 2003 and 2004: Create a viable FOI coalition in every one of the 50 states.
That’s the ambitious goal that SPJ and the National Freedom of Information Coalition have set for themselves. In May of this year, our two organizations will take what we hope will be a giant step toward achieving that goal.
First, a quick reminder about the NFOIC. It’s based in Dallas at the headquarters of the FOI Foundation of Texas and is an umbrella organization for FOI groups around the country. The national SPJ organization is a member, as are state and local coalitions, including the Montana FOI Hotline in my own state.
The NFOIC encourages communication and interaction among its member organizations. It holds a national conference each spring and, in recent years, has organized additional regional roundtable discussions so FOIers can compare notes on problems and activities with their comrades in neighboring states.
Of special interest to NFOIC members are the project grants the coalition makes available, thanks to funding by the Knight Foundation. Over the years, those grants have financed FOI guides in book and video form, as well as other special access projects.
In the last couple of years, NFOIC leaders have been anxious to achieve one of the organization’s most cherished goals – to establish functioning FOI coalitions in all 50 states. That goal meshes with a dream held for many years by former SPJ President and current Tennessee Project Sunshine Chair Frank Gibson.
Tennessee is one of almost 20 states that have no FOI coalition, despite intensive efforts by Frank and others. In May, Frank will try again, with the help of a new incubator – a major national FOI conference scheduled for May 16-17 in Nashville and sponsored jointly by SPJ and NFOIC.
Of course, organizers have more on their minds than just Tennessee. Thanks to help from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, we’ll be able to help bring folks to Nashville from other states that need coalitions. (At press time, 11 states had been targeted for 2003, with several more slated for 2004.) Once they arrive, they’ll get the information and motivation they need to get organizations started in their states.
The Nashville gathering promises to be a landmark event, not just because of its mission. It will mark the first time that SPJ and NFOIC have worked together as full partners on a national event. I’m pleased to see that. It’s something I’ve thought about ever since becoming FOI Committee Chair in 1999.
As I write this, planning for the conference is underway. As you read this, registration forms may be available online through www.nfoic.org.
If we’re successful in Nashville, the SPJ-NFOIC partnership might turn into an ongoing entity that will benefit journalists and citizens alike.
On another subject, trends in access that SPJ has warned about are becoming reality. Two examples from my own community in Montana:
• County commissioners and local health officials learned recently that information regarding an aging dam upstream from the city of Missoula has been removed from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Web site on grounds of “national security.” Apparently, the dam is now considered “critical infrastructure” under the 2002 Homeland Security Act.
The commissioners had wanted information about the condition of the dam’s underwater structure. The information is important because the reservoir behind the dam is a federal Superfund site, containing vast amounts of toxic sediments washed down from upstream mining and smelting operations.
• During the fall 2002 college football season, the University of Montana stopped providing information to the media about injuries to players during games. The school cited “privacy of medical information” as the reason. As SPJ prepares for its annual spring lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., it would be helpful to know if other SPJ members have experienced similar clampdowns on information. Feel free to send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. He is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee.