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Fixing FOIA

Americans had a little something extra to celebrate this 4th of July.

Right before the holiday weekend, President Obama signed the FOIA Im­provement Act of 2016.

The timing was just about perfect: The original Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966.

Fix FOIA By 50 checkedFifty years later, the president inked this year’s act, bringing the FOIA into the 21st century.

As Vice President Joe Biden might say, this is a big, um, deal.

Here are some of the improvements:

Openness. The government now will operate, by law, under a “presumption of openness.” New presidents generally enter an executive order to this effect as they take office. It’s now required by statute. Despite Obama’s pledge back in 2009 to have the “most transparent administration in history,” the current administration has been anything but. The Obama Justice Department helped to scuttle the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014. How do we know this? VICE News, an online news operation, filed and pre­vailed in a FOIA lawsuit to get the doc­uments.

Electronic records. The act requires agencies to maintain records in electronic format. If a document has been requested more than three times, it must be posted.

Email requests. Agencies must ac­cept requests over email. Yes, currently everything has to be in paper format.

A single portal. The government will be building a single online portal for cit­izens and journalists to make requests. Ostensibly, this will speed things up. Fin­gers crossed on that.

Passage of the act was that rare thing in Congress – a bipartisan effort.

In the House, Republican Reps. Darrell Issa of California and Jason Chaffetz of Utah teamed with Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings to push the bill. In the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, worked alongside Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas to pass the changes. The Senate version of the improvement bill (S. 337) passed both houses unanimously.

The Sunshine in Government Initia­tive is a coalition of nine media groups calling for open government. (Disclosure: The Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am president, is one of the mem­bers of SGI).

SGI had been pushing a campaign for a year to “Fix FOIA by 50,” that is, to get the Improvement Act passed by FOIA’s 50th anniversary. July 4 provided a nice deadline for everyone involved, including the president.

FOIA isn’t just a journalists’ tool, al­though many reporters have found it valuable in their investigative work. There are plenty of citizens who have learned to use FOIA.

Go back to the original rationale for FOIA: An open government is a healthy government. The American people are entitled to know what the government is doing. When citizens are kept in the dark, American democracy fails.

The reforms in the 2016 Improvement Act are significant and beneficial. Here’s to keeping the light shining.

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