The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports that the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) has received a $2 million, three-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to create the Knight FOI Fund, which will help state freedom of information advocacy groups cover litigation costs associated with public records and open meetings disputes.
NFOIC is a nonpartisan alliance of citizen-driven, nonprofit, freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies, and attorneys that works to protect the public's right to oversee its government. The coalition was spurred to create the litigation fund after a summer 2009 survey of its members revealed declining levels of freedom of information litigation and the prospect of steeper declines in the future. From NFOIC's press release:
The need for such a fund arose from the realization that the economic crisis and the evolution of the news media has resulted in declining levels of FOI advocacy. The Knight Foundation and the NFOIC had a hunch that that support for litigation and for the work of FOI coalitions themselves was threatened by the media economy. So, in the summer of 2009, we asked NFOIC members to respond to a brief informal survey.
An online survey was sent to all NFOIC member coalitions, and the results were convincing: When asked whether, in the past five years, the number of open government lawsuits filed by the news media in their state had fallen to varying degrees, 60 percent of groups, or 23 states, reported that litigation had "fallen dramatically." Another eight states reported that litigation had fallen slightly, meaning that nearly 80 percent of respondent coalitions reported decreasing litigation levels.
More ominously, 85 percent of respondents said that they expected FOI litigation to decline more dramatically in the next three years. The open-ended responses really tell the tale here, as coalition members all said that they expect the slowdown in litigation to worsen in the immediate future. And it’s not just litigation: many of the responses indicated an unwillingness by the news media in their state to even turn to the lawyers for an angry letter demanding access to information that clearly is public.
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We received similar responses from 30-plus states, all with the same theme: where once the news business stood ready to defend openness, it now faces such relentless corporate cost-cutting pressure that litigation often is out of the question.
Kudos to NFOIC and the Knight Foundation for taking on this important work to help sustain the invaluable watchdog function formerly—but not ineluctably—tied to the newspaper business.
(Note: The Knight Foundation provides funding for the Citizen Media Law Project and the Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), and NFOIC is an OMLN partner organization.)