High Court Mulls Public's Right To Know of Threats to Its Safety

December 15, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case with wide-ranging implications for the public's right to know about threats to its safety and health. In the past decade, with scant legislative or court approval, the federal government has drastically expanded exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act claiming public safety and security as a justification.

But in the case of Milner v. Navy, various groups claim that secrecy itself is a danger to the public. The case involves the public's right to know the potential blast radius of a Navy ammunition depot in a populated area. Ironically, in the name of national security, the Navy may be threatening the lives and property of residents near the depot.

Glen Scott Milner, a Puget Sound resident and activist, sought information that would identify the locations and potential blast ranges of explosive ordnance stored at Washington’s Naval Magazine Indian Island.

The "law enforcement" exemption to FOIA, once meant mostly to protect sensitive pre-trial criminal evidence, has been expanded in the past decade to prevent disclosure of vast swaths of information.

Such information could include data commonly sought by environmental reporters, including pipeline safety inspection data, environmental impacts of Liquefied Natural Gas terminals, maps showing consequences of dam failure, proposed powerline corridors, or the routing of railcars carrying toxics that could wipe out most of a city.

The Society of Environmental Journalists joined several other journalism groups in filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting disclosure and opposing expansion of the FOIA exemption.