The Public’s Right to Know: HA! How Courts and Federal Agencies Stonewall on Citizen Access to Government Information
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
How can we get our government to work for us if we don’t know what they’re up to? Last week, a federal court addressed one aspect of the problem of ‘public’s right to know’ – to get access to information – when it decided along rather miserly grounds to uphold the current means of financing the PACER system, whereby the government can charge 10 cents a page to download court documents.
In 2016, three nonprofit organizations, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice sued the federal courts—in federal court. The class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of all fee-paying PACER users, argued that these hefty charges were illegal. Federal law allows the courts to charge fees “only to the extent necessary” to provide public access to information. Over the last 15 years, the cost of storage and bandwidth has plunged. Yet PACER’s fees have actually risen from 7 cents to 10 cents. These fees have raised far more money than it costs to run the PACER system: $146 million in 2016 alone.
The ruling reminded me of the saying attributed to Analtole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”
So I ask, dear readers, how many clients of white shoe firms can’t foot these fees for copying documents? As opposed to clients of public interest firms, journalists, scholars, and even curious members of the public?
I don’t even have to go so far today in this post to argue these costs should be free. But surely, they don’t have to be a profit center either.
Free Flow of Information
My views on the free flow of information were formed quite a while ago, long before Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, when I was a graduate student tussling with the government over granting me access to documents in the National Arcihives or Presidential Library system. Places where one shouldn’t have difficulty examining government records. How naive was I!
I wrote about budget and trade policy. Now you. dear readers, understand these are deadly serious topics, and people are harmed by how one sets the rules of the economic game. I didn’t write about more obviously controversial topics, such as US government policy in the Congo during the Kennedy administration, as did my good friend David Gibbs in The Political Economy of Third World Intervention: Mines, Money, and U.S. Policy in the Congo Crisis. David had to file Freedom of Information (FOAI)requests to get information, and I watched the government toy with him for sport.
You see, the government in theory has to give up at least some of the documents. But it can do so in its own sweet time – after deciding how long it will take to process the documents and charging “reasonable” fees to search for documents, whether it coughs up any documents are not.
Now, if you think this problem only bedevils grad students and investigative journalists, you’d be wrong.
The feds don’t have to be blatant and outright deny access to documents. Take the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for example. How long do you think it takes, at present, tfor the agency o process a FOIA request?
Try at least three years. Now wags may say the SEC should pay me to look at their documents (There’s a very good reason I no longer concentrate elusively on securities law.) All kidding aside, SEC filings are rich sources of corporate information — the mundane, the secret, the problematic.
One of the friends of the blog in August of 2019 received a response to a request for documents made in August 2017, and was told he would have to wait another twelve months or more before he would get any documents – and that only if he affirmed he “would like to stay on our chronological list for eventual processing.” Needless to say, I doubt if there is a statutory basis for the SEC to impose any such requirement. I’ve appended the document at the end of this post. This is what the SEC considered to be a “reasonable” time to comply with FOIA requests.
UK System Better? Now, we all know there are huge problems with the UK’s system of information management – starting with the Official Secrets Act. Which lands you in jail (or should I say gaol) if you disclose any official document.
But, in the UK, there s a regular schedule for disclosure of government documents – after a specified number of years, documents are publicly available, and IIRC, there is a sliding scale of time that must pass before a document may be released (UK readers, please pipe up in comments.)
And that’s just government declassification. Under The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, which concerns records created by presidents or vice presidents after 20 January 1981, changed the legal ownership of the President’s official records from private to public. The legislation authorized a new statutory structure under which Presidents must manage their records. This legisslation PRA was amended in 2014, to tighten provisions on electronic records, banning sending electronic records through non-official accounts unless certain conditions are met.
As before the law change, presidential records were considered personal, they later were donated to the government by a deed of gift. Some of these deeds – that of JFK, for example, were particularly restrictive. meaning that even if the government elected to declassify a document, researchers weren’t home free until the documents were deemed able to be released under the deed of gift. IIRC correctly, in the JFK case, there was some language to the effect that the information couldn’t be used to injure, annoy, or harass anyone. Obviously, any controversial records would be caught up by that provision. Similar restrictions applied to papers donated by administration officials. The mandatory review process is complicated, and the archivists try to respond to requests for release of documents caught up by various restrictions.
Bottom line: government documents are by no means lined up and waiting for eager researchers to plunge ahead with their research – even when they concern matters that transpired quite some time ago.
And even if no obstacles are placed in the way of release, there are still those pesky copying fees to meet.
Which brings us full circle back to where we began: the latest federal court case.