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The Courthouse Bully Award - Every Agency Suing a Requester
As director of the privacy advocacy group We See You Watching Lexington, Michael Maharrey filed a public records request to find out how his city was spending money on surveillance cameras. After the Lexington Police Department denied the request, he appealed to the Kentucky Attorney General's office - and won.
Rather than listen to the state's top law enforcement official, Lexington Police hauled Maharrey into court.
As the Associated Press reported last year, lawsuits like these are reaching epidemic proportions. The Louisiana Department of Education sued a retired educator who was seeking school enrollment data for his blog. Portland Public Schools in Oregon sued a parent who was curious about employees paid while on leave for alleged misconduct. Michigan State University sued ESPN after it requested police reports on football players allegedly involved in a sexual assault. Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University have each sued their own student newspapers whose reporters were investigating sexual misconduct by school staff.
These lawsuits are despicable. At their most charitable, they expose huge gaps in public records laws that put requesters on the hook for defending lawsuits they never anticipated. At their worst, they are part of a systematic effort to discourage reporters and concerned citizens from even thinking of filing a public records request in the first place.
The Lawless Agency Award - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
In the chaos of President Trump's immigration ban in early 2017, the actions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and higher-ups verged on unlawful. And if CBP officials already had their mind set on violating all sorts of laws and the Constitution, flouting FOIA seems like small potatoes.
Yet that's precisely what CBP did when the ACLU filed a series of FOIA requests to understand local CBP agents' actions as they implemented Trump's immigration order. ACLU affiliates throughout the country filed 18 separate FOIA requests with CBP, each of which targeted records documenting how specific field offices, often located at airports or at physical border crossings, were managing and implementing the ban. The requests made clear that they were not seeking agency-wide documents but rather wanted information about each specific location's activities.
CBP ignored the requests and, when several ACLU affiliates filed 13 different lawsuits, CBP sought to further delay responding by asking a federal court panel to consolidate all the cases into a single lawsuit. To use this procedure - which is usually reserved for class actions or other complex national cases - CBP essentially misled courts about each of the FOIA requests and claimed each was seeking the exact same set of records.
The court panel saw through CBP's shenanigans and refused to consolidate the cases. But CBP basically ignored the panel's decision, acting as though it had won. First, it behaved as though all the requests came from a single lawsuit by processing and batching all the documents from the various requests into a single production given to the ACLU. Second, it selectively released records to particular ACLU attorneys, even when those records weren't related to their lawsuits about activities at local CBP offices.
Laughably, CBP blames the ACLU for its self-created mess, calling their requests and lawsuits "haphazard" and arguing that the ACLU and other FOIA requesters have strained the agency's resources in seeking records about the immigration ban. None of that would be a problem if CBP had responded to the FOIA requests in the first place. Of course, the whole mess could also have been avoided if CBP never implemented an unconstitutional immigration order.
The Franz Kafka Award for Most Secrets About Secretive Secrecy - CIA
The CIA's aversion to FOIA is legendary, but this year the agency doubled down on its mission of thwarting transparency. As Emma Best detailed for MuckRock, the intelligence agency had compiled a 20-page report that laid out at least 126 reasons why it could deny FOIA requests that officials believed would disclose the agency's "sources and methods."
But that report? Yeah, it's totally classified. So not only do you not get to know what the CIA's up to, but its reasons for rejecting your FOIA request are also a state secret.
Special Recognition for Congressional Overreach - U.S. House of Representatives
Because Congress wrote the Freedom of Information Act, it had the awesome and not-at-all-a-conflict-of-interest power to determine which parts of the federal government must obey it. That's why it may not shock you that since passing FOIA more than 50 years ago, Congress has never made itself subject to the law.
So far, requesters have been able to fill in the gaps by requesting records from federal agencies that correspond with Congress. For example, maybe a lawmaker writes to the U.S. Department of Puppies asking for statistics on labradoodles. That adorable email chain wouldn't be available through Congress, but you could get it from the Puppies Department's FOIA office. (Just to be clear: This isn't a real federal agency. We just wish it was.)
In 2017, it became increasingly clear that some members of Congress believed that FOIA could never reach anything they do, even when they or their staffs share documents or correspond with federal agencies. The House Committee on Financial Services sent a threatening letter to the Treasury Department telling them to not comply with FOIA. After the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget released records that came from the House Ways and Means Committee, the House intervened in litigation to argue that their records cannot be obtained under FOIA.
In many cases, congressional correspondence with agencies is automatically covered by FOIA, and the fact that a document originated with Congress isn't by itself enough to shield it from disclosure. The Constitution says Congress gets to write laws; it's just too bad it doesn't require Congress to actually read them.