By: Brian M. Watson
As has been discussed on this blog (here, here, and here) and pointed specifically at by the American Library Association’s January 2017 “Resolution on Access to Accurate Information,” that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an essential tool for citizen knowledge, freedom, and government transparency. It is also under attack.
If you are unfamiliar with it, the Freedom of Information Act was originally signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, despite his opposition to it, because he “believed that freedom of information is so vital that … [it should not] be restricted.” This was, ironically, obtained with a FOIA Request. After the Nixon presidency, it was strengthened so that (hopefully) journalists and citizens would be able to help prevent another Nixon.
It was also made even stronger again in 1976, 1986, 1996, 2002, 2007, 2016 — which shows just how important it has become and how often a reluctant government has had to be pushed to make it stronger. The FOIA is, I would propose, one of the most important demonstrations of the power of a democracy. Furthermore, it is an invaluable tool for journalists, historians, researchers, scientists and much more — as demonstrated beautifully by Jane’a Johnson in her discussion on Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and others.
In a sneaky move between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the Interior Department proposed a rule change that would make it harder for people to get the information they needed by:
- allowing government employees more time to respond to FOIA requests, thus allowing them to cover up or find further excuses to cover up politically sensitive documents
- increasing the burden on requesters to be specific in what they are looking for and they “will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.” This makes it much easier for them to deny people for being too vague, but it also means that if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for they might not provide it.
- the bureau “may impose a monthly limit for processing records … in order to treat FOIA requesters equitably by responding to a greater number of FOIA requests each month.” This means that the biggest requesters of information — journalists, academics, researchers, and government accountability projects — would be out of luck.
- and finally, they would demand to know exactly why a person wants that information and how they intend to use that information, thus making the standards higher and damaging the letter and the spirit of the law.
Perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that because the government is shut down, people have no way of letting their voices and opinions be known. As with any government rule change, there is an open comment period, but as the government is shut down, there is no one answering or looking at the comments people are making. FOIA requests about the change in FOIA rules are not being answered because the government is not working. Additionally, every time the government shuts down, it adds weeks on to the time it takes to get information.
It would almost be funny if it were not so upsetting.
These rule changes may be ruled illegal, but the court battle could take months or years, and during that time more issues could be hidden, more voices could be silenced, and FOIA requests could be neither free nor informative.
Brian M. Watson is a historian of the book and sexuality, and works as a pre-professional archivist at the Kinsey Institute. They are especially interested in histories of privacy, censorship, and queer theory. After receiving a History and English BA, they received a MA in History and Culture from Drew University and are currently pursuing a MLIS in Archives and Digital Humanities at Indiana University Bloomington.
Their first book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad resulted in an appearance on Conan O’Brien and elsewhere, and they are currently working on histories of post-war sexuality until the Reagan & AIDS and another on the history of nonmonogamy. They work as a pre-professional graduate assistant at IUB’s Scholarly Communications department and also as a volunteer moderator and podcast host for the world’s largest academic history forum, AskHistorians. Find them on twitter @HistoryOfPorn.