As Number Of Pending FOIA Lawsuits Grows, Newsgathering Efforts Slow

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Written by: Brian Sonenstein

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One of the most important skills for a journalist to have is the ability to file successful records requests, commonly referred to as FOIAs.

FOIA is an acronym for the Freedom Of Information Act. That’s the name of crucial federal transparency legislation that gives media and the public access to records from government agencies. And each state has its own version of FOIA governing the release of records from state and local agencies.

FOIA Resources

These laws are essential to a free press and have made enormous contributions to the public’s understanding of how the government operates. Reporters can use records requests to gain access to documents like emails between government officials, agency reports and statistics, and a LOT more.

You can obtain fun or interesting information, such as complaints made by CIA employees about the food in their cafeteria. But more importantly, you can gain access to truly newsworthy documents as well. Under the current administration, reporters have used FOIA to shed light on actions taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as to discover how much money the federal government has spent on security and other accommodations for the president.

There are a lot of fantastic tools and resources out there to help reporters (and members of the general public) who wish to file requests. MuckRock is a powerful tool and a great place to get ideas and strategies by following along with requests made by others. The Reporters Committee For Freedom Of The Press website is another valuable resource that houses a FOIA Wiki with lots of great information.

FOIA Request Response Time Slows

Unfortunately, reporters have seen a significant decline in the government’s responsiveness to their requests over the last several years. When reporters want to challenge an agency’s denial of a request or failure to respond to a request, they can file a lawsuit and take the government to court.

But even with this legal recourse, access to agency documents seems to be getting worse. Over the last six years, the pool of pending FOIA lawsuits has steadily grown. Around 2016-2017, the number of pending cases expanded dramatically.

Increasing Number Of Pending FOIA Lawsuits

According to a recent report published by the FOIA Project, the number of pending FOIA lawsuits more than doubled in the last three years, from 702 lawsuits in 2016 to 1448 in 2019.

Among cases that have been pending for at least two years, the growth is even larger — from 138 cases in 2016 to 330 by 2019. To put it another way, the number of FOIA lawsuits that are pending for extended periods of time are growing, too.

The FOIA project also found that while the number of new lawsuits under President Donald Trump’s administration grew compared to previous administrations, they peaked in 2018 and then plateaued. Despite this, the number of pending cases still grew.

We know that more lawsuits are being filed because agencies aren’t responding to requests, and that reporters are waiting longer to file lawsuits in the first place. But what’s behind the backlog of pending lawsuits? Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear if agencies or judges are slowing things down.

But, as the FOIA Project observes, one thing is for certain: “Gaining access to government records has often become a frustratingly lengthy battle, and the problem seems to be getting worse rather than better.”

NisonCo supports a free press and our network of journalists who rely on FOIA resources to deliver accurate information to the public. If you’re a reporter looking for assistance with filing FOIA requests, contact our team.

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