Even if snow clouds return, this is Sunshine Week — an annual effort of journalists nationwide to highlight the importance of the public’s right to know about our government.
A key tool for exercising our right to know is the federal Freedom of Information Act. Journalists know that’s what FOIA stands for as do other citizens who have used this law to obtain information held by the government — information that affects Americans’ lives and livelihoods. Here are a few examples of how the Freedom of Information Act played a role in Gazette news stories over the past year:
Organizers of March for Our Lives hoped to rally this Saturday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but the National Park Service denied a permit, stating that another group — that the NPS wouldn’t name – had already reserved the mall. The student march permit application was filed on Feb. 20, six days after the massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida. Public Citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the mall permittee' application to ascertain which group made the earliest request. Public Citizen cited the public’s right to know whether “unfair processing or some other form of government misconduct is responsible for keeping the march off the mall.”
When an Idaho environmental law firm requested government documents used to justify shrinking the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the U.S. Department of Justice refused and asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. The department claimed attorney-client privilege for 12 pages that were redacted from a 60-page document.
Kathryn QannaYahu, a public land access advocate based in Helena, filed Freedom of Information Act requests pertaining to the transfer last year of the Livingston district ranger who had defended public access in the Crazy Mountains. Information she obtained through FOIA revealed that a Facebook post falsely attributed to Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz, caused private property owners to complain to Sen. Steve Daines, who complained to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who ordered the ranger to be reassigned and investigated. Sienkiewicz has been reinstated.
In late 2015, an elk hunter shot and killed a famous 25-year-old grizzly bear (known to bear watchers as Scarface) just outside the Yellowstone National Park boundary by Gardiner. Shooting a grizzly is a federal offense punishable by a $50,000 fine and a year in jail. The hunter, who claimed self-defense, wasn’t charged. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities refused to disclose details of their investigation. Two Gardiner residents, Kat Brekken and Kelly Thompson, filed a Freedom of Information Act request that resulted in the report’s release in June 2017. The hunter’s name wasn’t released, but the report showed that he had changed details in his account of the grizzly encounter. The report also revealed that the hunter wasn’t carrying bear spray as he hiked alone at night and said he didn’t need to. In a statement to The Gazette, Brekken pointed out: “Scarface’s death could have been avoided with some basic common sense and known protocols in grizzly bear country.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press summarizes the Freedom of Information Act this way: “The federal FOIA provides access to all records of all federal agencies in the executive branch, unless those records fall within one of nine categories of exempt information that agencies are permitted (but generally not required) to withhold.”
As seen in the examples above, the effectiveness of the law depends on the initiative of citizens to file FOIA requests and on the government’s responsiveness to those requests. President Barack Obama announced his commitment to government transparency on his first day in office, but journalists and other Freedom of Information Act users were disappointed that the Obama administration failed to fulfill its promise. Responses to FOIA requests slowed down, and were turned down in greater numbers.
President Donald Trump has called the free press the “enemy” and uses the term “fake news” to refer to news that he doesn’t like. Critical readers should not be distracted by his attacks on journalists. What we need to worry about more is the information the Trump administration won’t tell the public – about public land policies, about secret meetings with special interests, about his business interests that may be affected by changes he makes in public policy.
The public’s right to know is vital to the strong self-government that has been the American way since 1776. The Billings Gazette staff works every to provide accurate information that will help readers understand their government and participate in public policy decisions. That’s what journalists mean by “let the sun shine in.”