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Obstructionists, Shredders, and Censors

The Foilies 2019: Recognizing the year's worst in government transparency

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The cause of government transparency finally broke through to the popular zeitgeist this year. It wasn't an investigative journalism exposé or a civil rights lawsuit that did it, but a light-hearted sitcom about a Taiwanese American family set in Orlando, Florida, in the late 1990s.

In a January episode of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family's two youngest children — overachievers Evan and Emery — decide if they sprint on all their homework, they'll have time to plan their father's birthday party.

"Like the time we knocked out two English papers, a science experiment, and built the White House out of sugar cubes," Evan said. "It opened up our Sunday for filing Freedom of Information requests."

"They may not have figured out who shot JFK," Emery added. "But we will."

The eldest child, teenage slacker Eddie, concluded with a sage nod, "You know, once in a while, it's good to know nerds."

Amen to that. Around the world, nerds of all ages are using laws like the United States' Freedom of Information Act (and state-level equivalent laws) to pry free secrets and expose the inner workings of our democracy. Each year, open government advocates celebrate these heroes during Sunshine Week, an annual advocacy campaign on transparency.

But the journalists and researchers who rely on these important measures every day can't help but smirk at the boys' scripted innocence. Too often, government officials will devise novel and outrageous ways to reject requests for information or otherwise stymie the public's right to know. Even today — 20 years after the events set in the episode and more than 55 years after the assassination itself — the White House continues to withhold key documents from the Kennedy assassination files.

Since 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech, privacy and government transparency in the digital age, has published The Foilies to recognize the bad actors who attempted to thwart the quests for truth of today's Evans and Emerys. With these tongue-in-cheek awards, we call out attempts to block transparency, retaliation against those who exercise their rights to information, and the most ridiculous examples of incompetence by government officials who handle these public records.

The Preemptive Shredding Award

Inglewood Police Department

In defiance of the law enforcement lobby, California legislators passed a law (SB 1421) requiring police and sheriffs to disclose officer misconduct records in response to California Public Records Act requests. These documents, often contained in personnel files, had historically been untouchable by members of the public and the press.

Almost immediately, police unions across the Golden State began to launch lawsuits to undermine these new transparency measures. But the Inglewood Police Department takes the prize for its efforts to evade scrutiny. Mere weeks before the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the agency began destroying records that were set to become publicly available.

"This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous," Inglewood Mayor James T Butts Jr. told the Los Angeles Times in defending the purge. We imagine Butts would find it equally ridiculous to suggest that the fact he had also been a cop for more than 30 years, including serving in Inglewood and later as police chief of Santa Monica, may have factored into his support for the destruction of records.

The Corporate Eclipse Award

Google, Amazon, and Facebook

Sunshine laws? Tech giants think they can just blot those out with secretive contracts. But two nonprofit groups — Working Partnerships and the First Amendment Coalition — are fighting this practice in California by suing the city of San Jose over an agreement with Google that prevents city officials from sharing the public impacts of development deals, circumventing the California Public Records Act.

Google's proposed San Jose campus is poised to have a major effect on the city's infrastructure, Bloomberg reported. Yet, according to the organization's lawsuit, records analyzing issues of public importance such as traffic impacts and environmental compliance were among the sorts of discussions Google demanded be made private under their non-disclosure agreements.

And it's not just Google using these tactics. An agreement between Amazon and UC Berkeley includes a provision that the state will give the corporate giant — which maintains a package pickup location inside the ASUC Student Union — a heads-up when anyone files a public records request asking for information about them. Similar agreements hamstring city governments in New York, Virginia, and likely other locations. The Columbia Journalism Review reported that Facebook also has used this increasingly common strategy for companies to keep cities quiet and the public in the dark about major construction projects.

The (Harlem) Shaky Grounds for Redaction Award

Federal Communications Commission

After repealing the Open Internet Order and ending net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai doubled down on his efforts to upend online culture. He released a cringe-inducing YouTube video titled "7 Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality" that featured his own rendition of the infamous "Harlem Shake" meme. (For the uninitiated, the meme is characterized by one person subtly dancing in a room of people to Baauer's track "Harlem Shake." Then the bass drops and the crowd goes nuts, often with many people in costumes.)

MuckRock editor JPat Brown filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails related to the video, but the FCC rejected the request, claiming the communications were protected "deliberative" records.

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