FOIA improvement bill, approved in Senate committee, could benefit student journalists





WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bill intended to amend the Freedom of Information Act passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously on Thursday and will now move to the Senate.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the committee, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) wrote the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, which would require federal agencies to be more open when releasing information under the law and “reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information from the public.”

“It is up to us as Democrats and Republicans to work together to ensure that open government is a reality for the people we serve,” Leahy said in a news release on Thursday.

Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the changes could benefit student journalists because it would require the Office of Management and Budget to create a centralized portal for all federal open records requests.

Currently, all federal agencies have their own system for processing FOIA requests, “and if you are new to the process, that can be really intimidating and confusing,” Bennett said. “I think it actually deters a lot of young people from making requests.”

The bill could also help student journalists when it comes to the fees that accompany a FOIA request. If signed into law, agencies could no longer charge fees to the requestor for “unusual or exceptional circumstances” if the agency fails to comply with the statutory time limit for producing records, Bennett said, adding that “students are not the best-funded people in the world.”

Bennett said the advocacy group OpenTheGovernment.org, which is supported by the Fund for Constitutional Government, a foundation dedicated to exposing and correcting corruption, will continue its push for additional reform. However, she said the legislation is “one of the biggest reforms to FOIA that’s even been offered in the last couple of decades.”

Wednesday night before the vote in committee, OpenTheGovernment.org sent a letter supporting the FOIA amendment to members of the Judiciary Committee, co-signed by more than 70 organizations, including MuckRock, the American Society of News Editors and the Project on Government Oversight.

“Non-governmental organizations play a key role in ensuring our air and water stay clean, our food supply remains safe, and that the needs of the general public are properly taken into account by government agencies,” according to the letter. “But, our groups must have adequate information about government operations in order to fulfill our missions of standing up for the rights of the public.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.


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