2002 Archives: SEJ Speaks on FOI Issues

November 18, 2002
SEJ Task Force voices concern over FOIA exemptions in Homeland Security Act to key U.S. senators

On Monday, November 18, 2002, the SEJ Task Force again voiced its concern over the FOIA exemptions contained in the Homeland Security Act. SEJ President Dan Fagin, board liaison Jim Bruggers and SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force chair Ken Ward, Jr. signed a letter sent to several key senators, urging them to support compromise language that had previously been agreed to.

November 18, 2002
SEJ Task Force voices concern over FOIA exemptions in Homeland Security Act to key U.S. senators

On Monday, November 18, 2002, the SEJ Task Force again voiced its concern over the FOIA exemptions contained in the Homeland Security Act. SEJ President Dan Fagin, board liaison Jim Bruggers and SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force chair Ken Ward, Jr. signed a letter sent to several key senators, urging them to support compromise language that had previously been agreed to.

Among other things, the letter said, "Some secrecy provisions may be legitimate in time of war. But frankly, we are worried that the pendulum is swinging far too much toward secrecy."

You'll find a copy of the letter here.


November 15, 2002
SEJ joins Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in expressing deep concern about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's proposed new rules on the release of FERC documents

SEJ has joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in expressing deep concern about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's proposed new rules on the release of FERC documents.

In response to terrorist fears following 9/11, FERC has proposed to essentially dispense with using FOIA for information that the agency deems "critical energy infrastructure information". FERC has not precisely defined that term, but proposes to limit access to such information to those demonstrating a "need" to know. That term was not defined, either.

With the approval of the SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force, SEJ President Dan Fagin signed a comment letter authored by RCFP and sent to FERC Nov. 14. Among other things, the letter states that the best way to protect energy facilities from terrorists is for the public to understand the potential vulnerabilities and push for better security measures. "Public demand for reliable infrastructures is possibly the greatest assurance that measures will be taken to strengthen them," the letter said.

The letter specifically identifies examples of how journalists have used such information. For example, the letter notes that records obtained by the Austin American-Statesman after a 1994 pipeline explosion near Corpus Christi, Texas, showed that a large utility company entrusted with keeping its pipelines in proper working order increased pressure in its pipeline "after being warned about corrosion and weaknesses in the steel." In fact, media organizations have used freedom of information laws extensively to expose defects in pipelines and pipeline management.

"We're very concerned that these FERC proposals, along with some provisions of the Homeland Security bill that is now speeding through Congress, may end up dramatically weakening the Freedom of Information Act and other open-government laws, making it much more difficult for reporters to do their jobs in the public interest," Fagin said. "We're grateful to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for partnering with SEJ and enabling us to speak out on this very important issue."

Read the RCFP/SEJ comments here. For more information about the FERC proposal, read SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force member Joe Davis' article in Environment Writer.


November 14, 2002
To: SEJ members and other journalists
From: Jim Bruggers, SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force board liaison and former SEJ president (2000-2002)

The news from Washington regarding the Homeland Security Act and the Freedom of Information is not good, according to the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

The two organizations are watching the issue closely, and report that in its first act since returning from the elections, Congress is "turning its back on a bipartisan Freedom of Information Act compromise in favor of a sweeping proposal that would hide virtually all information submitted to the government's new Department of Homeland Security."

An alert from SPJ also says that the new version of the homeland security bill includes language "that blows an enormous hole" in the federal Freedom of Information Act. The two groups called on Congress to replace that language with a compromise worked out in the Senate over the summer.

According to SPJ: "The bill would result in large amounts of information that is now open to be closed. It has the effect of shielding from the public and from lawsuits any industry mistakes that threaten public health.''

For more information, visit the the SPJ news alert page.


August 2, 2002
To: SEJ members and other journalists
From: Jim Bruggers, SEJ president, and SEJ Freedom of Information Task Force board liaison

The latest reports from Washington regarding the Freedom of Information and the proposed Homeland Security bill are not good — at least not for journalists and a free society.

The problem especially lies with the House version of the bill, with its extremely broad exemptions that would close access to very important sources of information critical to our democracy — and our jobs as journalists.

Just as I have encouraged SEJ members to write stories about the Homeland Security Bill, leaders of the American Society of Newspaper Editors are encouraging their members — the top editors at the nation's newspapers — to editorialize on the subject.

This should be done now.

The House has passed the bill, and the Senate will take up its version shortly after Congress' August break, and then the two will go to a conference committee. President Bush wants to sign the bill on or before September 11.

Here is some information from a suggested editorial from ASNE:

"One particularly troublesome area involves corporate information "voluntarily submitted" to the Homeland Security Department. The House version makes no attempt to determine whether the agency would have any legal authority to obtain such information, thus allowing companies to preemptively submit documents to hide embarrassing issues.

Thus, in the guise of legitimately protecting vital facts about infrastructure and vulnerabilities, the House language would grant immunity from civil punishments to corporations that violate securities, tax, civil rights, environmental, labor, consumer-protection, health and safety laws. Further, it would pre-empt state and local open-records laws, and would criminalize the release of such information."

The editorial goes on to say that the Senate version is better, though not perfect. "It limits the exemption to records furnished to Homeland Security, while the House version applies it to any governmental agency. It requires that such records, when submitted, be certified by the provider as customarily confidential, and not available to the public. It confines the exemptions to critical infrastructure information such as that pertaining to "vulnerability" or "threats to infrastructure"; the House makes no such distinctions. Finally, it limits the exemption to "records" documents whereas the House includes oral information that might eventually become part of a government written record, which would then be exempt as well."

You can also find links to the legislation at this ASNE webpage.


July 17, 2002
SEJ joins journalism groups expressing concern about FOIA exemptions in Homeland Security Act of 2002

Society of Environmental Journalists President James Bruggers has joined the leaders of several other groups raising concerns about FOIA exemptions that are written into the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which is being debated in Congress now. The House Government Reform Committee held a mark-up on the bill on July 11. SEJ has been informed that the House Commerce Committee dropped the FOIA exemption, after objections by journalists. Several other House committees will be looking at the bill, and amendments could be added. Bruggers signed the letter at the urging of SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force, of which he is a member and board liaison. He encourages SEJ members and all journalists to pay close attention to this legislation, to write stories about it and/or send notes to Congressional leaders, voicing individual concerns. "Most journalists aren't opposed to reasonable national security measures," he said. "But these blanket exemptions go way too far."