A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

FOIA training video can’t be released

A training video instructing staff on how to handle federal Freedom of Information Act requests has been produced by the Defense Department. The only problem with the video: It’s a secret.

“It seems ironic, very ironic,” said Mike Ravnitzky, a writer for American Lawyer magazine whose November request to view the video was turned down.

On appeal, his request was again denied by the Defense Department based on the Freedom of Information Act’s trade secret exemption. Due to excerpts from television newscasts and movies, including “Casablanca,” the 22-minute video cannot be released or shown without the owner’s permission, according to Henry McIntyre, Freedom of Information Act director for the Department of Defense.

The training video, according to a description on the scriptwriter’s Web site, follows a character named Trench Coat as he goes through the process of handling FOIA requests. The video has been shown internally, but McIntyre said permission must be secured from copyright holders before it can be released.

Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, said it’s “hysterical” that the video can’t be released.

“This is just such a perfect anecdotal example of what goes on every day all over the country when people make requests for things that are so obviously not secret and then are rejected,” Davis said.

Media gains access to sniper suspect records

Media organizations requested to attend the Lee Boyd Malvo juvenile court detention hearing on Nov. 4, 2002, but were not allowed to do so.

Several news organizations – including The Associated Press, The (Baltimore) Sun, The Washington Post and The New York Times – petitioned for access to the court records. On Feb. 19, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Bredar released the transcripts and related court documents.

According to the AP, the unsealed documents “detail uncertainty about Malvo’s identity and age after he was arrested with [John Lee] Muhammad in Maryland in October.” They also showed that prosecutors told the judge that “Malvo was in violation of Immigration and Naturalization Service restrictions put in place after he entered the country illegally in Washington state with his mother.”

Not all records were disclosed, however. About 70 lines in the 88 pages of released documents were blacked out, while four of the two dozen remain under seal.

Bill would make studies public

A resolution was introduced in February by U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that would give the public access to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service products via the Internet.

The CRS is responsible for researching and reporting on topics at the request of members of Congress. The bill would give the public access to much of the information, but a similar resolution was proposed and did not make it into law a few years ago.

The current proposal would give public access to records such as Senate gift reports, issue briefs and authorization and appropriations reports. Any information believed to be confidential by the director or head of a federal department or agency providing CRS information would not be made available.

Legislators push to keep military records secret

Military service records have traditionally been provided by state or county officials, but they soon may not be available in Maryland, New Mexico and Missouri.

A state bill introduced in Missouri and sponsored by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, could keep service records from the public’s view for 50 years after their file dates. Veterans are advised by the Department of Defense to file the records with the county clerk for safety purposes.

The records include information about veterans’ service records and awards they received during service, but they also include Social Security numbers. The information, which the government does not require to be filed, is used when veterans apply for federal benefits and loans. Once turned over, the information is subject to Missouri Sunshine Law.

Because the information is filed voluntarily, freedom of information advocates claim, it should be made public.

Much of the information that would be exempted under the state law can still be found at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, a federal depository for veterans’ military and medical records. Many of those records, however, were destroyed by fire in 1973.

Scalia bans media from free speech event

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia received an award for supporting free speech on March 19, but he banned all broadcast media from the event.

The City Club said Scalia insisted that there be no television and radio coverage of the event, although the group normally tapes speakers to be broadcast on public television later.

Scalia was awarded the organization’s Citadel of Free Speech Award.

“I might wish it were otherwise, but that was one of the criteria that he had for acceptance,” said James Foster, the club’s executive director.

A letter to the City Club from C-SPAN vice president and executive producer Terry Murphy said the ban “begs disbelief and seems to be in conflict with the award itself.” Murphy continued, saying, “How free is speech if there are limits to its distribution?”

The same demand was made by Scalia the previous night at a speech at John Carroll University. He spoke mostly about protection of religions by the constitution, but he also said that individual rights can be scaled back during wartime without violating the Constitution.

“The Constitution just sets minimums,” Scalia said. “Most of the rights that you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires.”

Bush news conferences kept at a minimum

Past presidents have regularly taken part in extended questioning during presidential news conferences. The tradition has become a rarity by President Bush, who dislikes the format and believes it may compromise his staff’s determined message management.

As insistent opposition grew to the then-likely war against Iraq, Bush went before 94 reporters for his eighth solo news conference. At the same point during their presidencies, President Bill Clinton had given 30 solo news conferences, and Bush’s father had given 58, according to Martha Joynt Kumar. Kumar is a Towson University political science professor who specializes in presidential communication.

According to Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, the administration has used fewer news conferences because “if you have a message you’re trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction.”

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