“We strongly disagree with the decision on a number of grounds, ranging from increased discrimination against certain classes of … in-state requesters to the additional burden it puts on every requester … in order to continue ensuring broad access to public records,” writes MuckRock News, an open government organization lambasting a recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision that restricts citizens’ ability to obtain state government documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The MuckRock response followed a unanimous, 9-0 SCOTUS ruling this week, finding that state government agencies only are required to respond to FOIAs from residents of their states.
The decision likely will hinder the operations of MuckRock News, an open government tool that has helped journalists, researchers, activists and historians file more than 4,000 requests and obtain 101,000-plus pages of government documents.
For civil liberties advocates, the Freedom of Information Act passed by Congress in 1966 was a major achievement empowering the public to request government records, including the FBI. These freedoms were expanded with the passage of the Privacy Act of 1974.
The unanimous SCOTUS decision was decided in McBurney v. Young, a case involving a man from California seeking tax information from Virginia and another former Virginia resident who had moved to Rhode Island.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the unanimous court, stated, “Requiring non-citizens to conduct a few minutes of Internet research in lieu of using a relatively cumbersome state FOIA process cannot be said to impose any significant burden.”
The dispute originally arose from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which grants Virginia citizens access to all public records but denies these rights to non-Virginians. The law states, “All public records shall be open to inspection and copying by any citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Justice Alito underscored the Virginia legislation saying, “This Court has repeatedly made clear that there is no constitutional right to obtain all the information provided by FOIA laws.”
Currently, seven states have laws with similarly resident-specific language for FOIA requests: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee.
MuckRock has put out a call to citizens in these states, asking for volunteers willing to co-file FOIA requests to help people outside these states obtain public records.
“This continued access to information at a state level is incredibly important for both individuals’ rights as well as large-scale reporting process,” MuckRock said.
FOIA requests provide a tool for citizens and journalists seeking to obtain information about the functions of state and federal governments. Using FOIA requests in all 50 states, MuckRock was about to compile a Drone Census report that gave the public information regarding local police departments’ use of unmanned drones for surveillance.
The organization claims that these drones were deployed with “little oversight, authorization or policy,” remaining outside the purview of public knowledge until information was made public through numerous FOIA requests.
Numerous state and local agencies, including, among others, the Maine State Police, the Ohio National Guard and the Miami Dade Police Department have been using drones for surveillance and anti-terror intelligence gathering operations that many contend are unconstitutional.