DULUTH — A federal judge in Ohio nailed it last week, with words worthy of praise from anyone concerned about government trying to operate in secrecy. In other words, they were praiseworthy words for all of us.
“Government transparency is critical to ensure the people have the information needed to check public corruption, hold government leaders accountable, and elect leaders who will carry out their preferred policies,” Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote, according to Eye on Ohio, the news outlet for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism.
Her words were in support of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision mandating that authorities provide public electronic database records when asked for them, the same way they long have had to, under law, turn over public records on paper. The decision was widely and rightly heralded, including by Cincinnati CityBeat, which called it a “big Freedom of Information Act win.”
When the act was originally passed by Congress in 1966, electronic databases for storing public records did not exist. They weren’t fathomed. Last week’s ruling helps to modernize and maintain as relevant the federal Freedom of Information Act, often referred to as FOIA.
The ruling was in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Investigative Reporting and its news outlet, Reveal. The center and Reveal sought Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) records linking 6.8 million firearms to criminal activity. Specifically, they wanted to investigate guns traced back to law enforcement.
The ATF didn’t respond to their request for the public records and then argued in court that a search query to produce such data would constitute a “new” record, which agencies aren’t required to disclose under FOIA.
The court disagreed, as Eye on Ohio reported.
Wardlaw supported the ruling by writing for the court: “Whether a search query of an existing database entails the creation of a ‘new record’ is a question of great importance in the digital age. ‘Database journalism is now fundamental to modern newsrooms,’ and ‘exactly how journalists can request and use information from (government) databases … has the potential to make or break efforts to hold the government accountable using its own data.’”
Her quotes were from a “friend-of-the-court” brief filed by the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic on behalf of 16 data journalists and five media-support organizations. That brief further pointed out that electronic government databases are ever-expanding.
“Releasing statistical aggregate data from government databases” may sometimes prove the “only way to comply with FOIA’s mandate while properly balancing the public’s and the government’s interests in safeguarding sensitive information,” the brief stated.
“Thus,” the judge wrote, “if running a search across these databases necessarily amounts to the creation of (an exempted-from-FOIA) new record, much government information will become forever inaccessible under FOIA, a result plainly contrary to Congress’s purpose in enacting FOIA.”
Most public officials and elected leaders are open and forthcoming, recognizing the importance of sharing information, good and bad, in compliance with the law. But laws can confuse, mistakes can be made, and, sometimes, there's a desire for secrecy that shortchanges all of us.
That’s why a critical need remains for the media and for the public to hold our elected leaders accountable and to be vigilant about ensuring that those who govern act responsibly and in accordance with law.
Last week’s ruling in Ohio helps to protect the public’s right to know. It helps to hold up democracy by ensuring government transparency. It was another light to illuminate — always — the truth.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.