2003 Archives: SEJ Speaks on FOI Issues

November 12, 2003
SEJ letter re: withdrawal of web access to Congressional Research Service reports

The SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force wrote letters today to congressmen Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Mark Green (R-WI) protesting the withdrawal of web access to Congressional Research Service reports.

As the reports are used by scores of U.S. journalists to help their audiences understand evermore complex issues confronting their nation, SEJ joined the American Library Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and dozens of other civic groups in urging restoration of access to this invaluable information.

To read the entire letter to Congressman Shays (an identical copy of which was sent to Congressman Green,) click here.

August 27, 2003
SEJ signs group letter demanding public input on Homeland Security procedures

The Society of Environmental Journalists, on behalf of its members, signed a letter sent by 75 organizations calling on the Department of Homeland Security to allow public input on procedures for "safeguarding" and sharing a vaguely defined set of information between firefighters, police officers, public health researchers, and federal, state and local governments. Organizations representing journalists, scientists, librarians, environmental groups, privacy advocates, and others sent the letter today to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

In a news release, the organizations said that, "Under the auspices of fighting terrorism, the Department is poised to write — without guarantees for public input — procedures that could sweep up otherwise publicly available information that has nothing to do with terrorism into a zone of secrecy while subjecting millions of Americans to confidentiality agreements." The letter asks Secretary Ridge to release to the public a draft version of the new procedures — which would not themselves contain classified information — and address public comments in writing a final version. The letter expresses concern that the procedures may cut a broad swath of information out of the public domain, that the procedures would subject millions inside and outside of government to nondisclosure agreements and criminal penalties for disclosing information improperly, and cut out the ability of journalists, community groups, and others to inform the public of activities of federal, state and local governments.

To read the entire letter to Ridge, click here.

June 16, 2003
SEJ submission to DHS re: comments to proposed rule on critical infrastructure information

Today, the Society of Environmental Journalists, in representation of its membership, submitted comments to the Department of Homeland Security in response to its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking [Federal Register: April 15, 2003 (Volume 68, Number 72), Pages 18523-18529], "Procedures for Handling Critical Infrastructure Information; Proposed Rule."

The remarks concerned the Department's proposed rule implementing Section 214 of the Homeland Security Act (PL 107-296) and broadening provisions of that law which would restrict public access not only to Critical Infrastructure Information (CII), but to other information needed by the public to protect their own health and safety.

The letter also urged the Department to remember that several important public purposes are served by giving the public the broadest feasible access to information about hazards to environmental health and safety, stating that "while a new caution is certainly indicated in light of the September 11, 2001, attacks, that is not the only lesson to be remembered."

You'll find the full text of SEJ's June 16th letter to the Associate General Counsel (General Law), DHS here.

March 20, 2003
SEJ submission to EPA re: public comments on ECHO database

The Society of Environmental Journalists, on behalf of its membership, responded on March 20, 2003 to the U.S. EPA's request for public comments on the usefulness of its ECHO database.

The letter supported EPA's evolution of access to environmental data, due to the fact that in an ever more complex world, "journalists reporting in the public interest have turned to computer-assisted techniques to help them make sense of issues they cover."

The letter also confirmed how essential and irreplaceable a searchable online database of enforcement/compliance information really is in helping journalists understand enforcement laws and hence, write accurate, fact-based stories.

You'll find the full text of SEJ's March 20th letter to Ms. Rebecca Kane of the U.S. EPA here.

March 14, 2003
SEJ joins journalism groups in support of "Restore FOIA" bill

The Society of Environmental Journalists joined other journalism groups March 14 in supporting the new "Restore FOIA" bill (S 609). The bill was introduced March 12 by five Senators to moderate the sweeping exemption to the Freedom of Information Act passed during the headlong rush to enact last year's Homeland Security Act.

That FOIA exemption, the first categorical one since the law was passed in 1966, exempted from disclosure any information a company submits to the government with a claim that it is relevant to homeland security. Last year, several Senators negotiated and crafted a "compromise" version of the exemption that narrowed some of the more sweeping provisions of the House-passed version. But the compromise failed to get floor consideration during the November 2002 pre-adjournment rush to pass the Homeland Security bill. The new "Restore FOIA" bill (S 609) embodies that compromise language.

SEJ's support of this initiative was communicated in a letter to Senate committee leaders and bill sponsors from Dan Fagin, SEJ President; Ken Ward Jr., Chair of the SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force; and James Bruggers, SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force.

"On behalf of our more than 1,200 members," SEJ leaders wrote, "we are writing to express our continued deep concerns about extraordinary secrecy provisions in the Homeland Security Act, and to encourage your support for changes that better balance the public's right to know with well-intentioned efforts to protect the public."

Among the groups supporting the Restore FOIA bill are the American Society of Magazine Editors, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Freedom of Information Center (University of Missouri School of Journalism), Magazine Publishers of America, National Federation of Press Women, National Newspaper Association, National Press Club, Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association, Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Read the full text of SEJ's March 14th letter to the senators here.

February 21, 2003
Greenwire reports FERC restricts information flow, as predicted by SEJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Colin Sullivan, Greenwire staff writer, reported on Friday, February 21, that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has become the first federal agency to formally advance the Bush administration's campaign to limit the flow of information in the name of homeland security when it voted to restrict public access to data on pipelines, electric transmission networks and power plants.

Citing terrorism concerns over "critical energy infrastructure information,'' FERC announced rules that would force reviewers of such information to sign nondisclosure agreements, limit handling of released information and create a federal critical energy infrastructure coordinator to oversee all document requests, according to Greenwire. The coordinator could override the Freedom of Information Act.

Greenwire quoted FERC Chairman Pat Wood: "I do think it's very clear that information has become a weapon in our society, and one of the more vulnerable places for that is the very visible energy infrastructure.

Freedom of the press and right-to-know advocates predicted a legal challenge.

"The FERC is enacting FOIA exemptions here, as well as rescinding a key component of the act — that a requester not have to state a purpose for the document," Charles Davis, executive director of the University of Missouri's Freedom of Information Center, told Greenwire.

To find out more about Greenwire (a subscription news service,) visit their website. Click here to view a summary of the final rule.

Read about prior RCFP/SEJ efforts on this issue here.