FOIA reform bill passes!

Pub date December 18, 2007
WriterTim Redmond
SectionPolitics Blog

After five years of effort, a group of ten media organizations called the Sunshine in Government Initiative has succeeded in getting Congress to pass a much-needed reform bill that addresses some of the worst problems with the Freedom of Information Act. It now goes to the president — but since there are Republican co-sponsors and it passed pretty overwhelmingly, there’s a chance he’ll sign it.

Here’s the official statement:

U.S. House Sends FOIA Reforms to President’s Desk,
Media Groups Praise Changes Helping Public Obtain Documents

The ten media organizations comprising the Sunshine in Government Initiative
(SGI) applaud the House and Senate for passing important bipartisan reforms
to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), House Oversight and
Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), Rep.
William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) and Rep. Lamar Smith
(R-TX) led the effort to pass this legislation. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) also
played a key role in getting this legislation over the finish line.

The media group members of SGI appreciate the hard work and dedication of
these members and their staffs for their diligent work to improve the way
FOIA works for the American public. Members of the SGI coalition include:
American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press, Association of
Alternative Newsweeklies, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government,
National Association of Broadcasters, National Newspaper Association,
Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors
Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of
Professional Journalists.

Statements from the Sunshine in Government Initiative and SGI Members

“After years of growing government secrecy, today’s vote reaffirms the
public’s fundamental right to know,” said Rick Blum, Coordinator of the
Sunshine in Government Initiative. “Fixing FOIA isn’t a secret. This bill
makes commonsense changes to help the public know what government is up to.
We thank the sponsors who championed real changes and worked hard to keep
the government’s doors open.”

“We applaud Congress for resolving the differences that existed in the House
and Senate versions of this important legislation and making its passage a
reality,” said Gilbert Bailon, president of the American Society of
Newspaper Editors and editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“This action reaffirms the public’s right to know and buttresses a statutory
right vital to our Democracy.”

Long-time open government advocate Pete Weitzel, Coordinator of the
Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, which is a member of SGI,
called the vote “a true holiday gift from Congress.”

Community newspapers particularly sought an independent office to resolve
disputes. “Strengthening the Freedom of Information Act will pay dividends
in public information for a long time to come. This new law has many
virtues. But as community newspaper journalists, we particularly celebrate
the development of an ombudsman office under the Office of Government
Information Services,” said Steve Haynes, President of the National
Newspaper Association and Publisher of the Oberlin (KS) News. “We hope it
will open doors that have too long been locked by delay and inattention to
information requests. National Newspaper Association congratulates Senators
Leahy, Cornyn and Kyl and House Chairman Henry Waxman for their authorship
and contributions to this bill. We hope this will be the first of many
enactments to improve transparency and help citizens better understand how
the government operates.”

Other media leaders praised today’s vote and the bill’s sponsors. ³The
Freedom of Information Act is an indispensable tool for citizens and
businesses to access information about their government, which,
unfortunately, too often includes government waste and wrongdoing,² said
John F. Sturm, President and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America.
³Today¹s bipartisan passage of the OPEN Government Act to strengthen and
reform FOIA is a great day for the public¹s interest in good government. We
applaud the dedication of all the lawmakers who pushed this important
measure forward, particularly Senators Patrick Leahy, John Cornyn, Jon Kyl
and Reps. Henry Waxman and Todd Platts.²

³This is a huge advancement for open government, thanks to the leadership of
Senators Leahy, Cornyn and Kyl and Representatives Waxman and Platt,² said
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors
Association. ³But this isn¹t just a victory for journalists; it¹s a victory
for every single member of the American public. This legislation will
eliminate some of the lengthy delays and persistent backlogs in the FOIA
process that create obstacles and limit the public¹s ability to make
informed choices in their communities.²

Other SGI members saw this as a strong change in direction. “Passage of the
FOIA bill will allow not only members of the press but all Americans to hold
their government more accountable. In a time when First Amendment rights
are under attack almost daily in this country, this bill is a major step to
ensuring America has a free press and a government that is transparent and
open,” noted Clint Brewer, president of the Society of Professional
Journalists and Executive Editor of the City Paper in Nashville, Tennessee.