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Fixing FOIA's Flaws at 50

Tony Webster, Portland, Oregon
Wikimedia Commons
An FBI response to a FOIA request

A landmark piece of legislation that assures public access to government documents turns 50 on July 4th. President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation in 1966, without so much as a statement, just avoiding a pocket veto. That reluctance set the stage for a love/hate relationship between presidential administrations and the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Today, there's a bill awaiting President Obama's signature, that will bring the law into the digital age. The FOIA Improvement Act creates a centralized online portal for requests across the government. Currently each agency has its own set of procedures for requesting documents. Documents and data must also be provided in digital form.

Trevor Timm, Executive Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation says the way we consume and access information has changed dramatically since 1974 when the law was last updated. 

"FOIA is really the cornerstone of transparency," says Timm. "Without knowing what the government is doing, it's impossible for voters to make proper decisions."

The bill also codifies a presumption of openness, meaning that government agencies can only withhold information if there is a foreseeable harm in releasing it.

That presumption may explain some of the Obama administration's reluctance about the bill, despite the fact that on his first full day in office, Obama himself outlined many of these provisions in a memo to federal agencies. The Freedom of the Press Foundation obtained documents that show the Obama administration lobbied hard against the bill now awaiting his signature.

Lynn Walsh, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, says the FOIA Improvement Act also creates a Chief FOIA Officers' Council for tracking requests for documents, but doesn't include any funding for those positions within government agencies. Walsh says the bill, "isn't as strong as it could have been, but is a step in the right direction."

Timm says President Obama will likely sign it. "The bill is good for his legacy."

Timm and Walsh talked with host Ben Kieffer on River to River. Also joining the conversation were Clark Kauffman, Engagement Editor at the Des Moines Register, and Randy Evans, Executive Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

This program is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes board, the Federation of State Humanities Council, and Humanities Iowa in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

Support is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, Columbia University and Humanities Iowa.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk