SEJ has joined the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government and other journalism groups in urging the Department of Justice to waive the huge fee it wants to charge a nonprofit group for information about detention of post-9/11 immigrant detainees.
While the issue does not relate directly to the environment, it affects all journalists. It is a key challenge to what the J-groups consider a Justice Department policy of using huge and unjustified fees as a way to prevent public access to information that should legally be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.
In a Feb. 14, 2005, letter to the Justice Department, CJOG, SEJ, and other J-groups urged the agency to back away from its demands for payment of a $372,799 up-front search fee before it would start retrieving the information for the liberal-leaning People for the American Way Foundation, which focuses on civil rights and constitutional liberties.
FOIA statutory and case law clearly dictate waiver of search fees (of any amount) when disclosure of the information is in the "public interest." The so-called "public interest" fee waiver was once given almost automatically to news media - but the Justice Dept. and federal agencies have since 2001 been making media work harder to justify it in each case. Courts have interpreted the provision to apply to nonprofits as well as news media. The law sets out six specific criteria for public interest fee waivers.
The Justice Department has made no secret of its desire to withhold the information at issue. Much of it relates to cases the government has asked courts to seal - and PFAW's request relates to the justification for doing so and the number of cases, but not the names of detainees.
In their letter, the J-groups cited cases where similar nonprofit groups (including the conservative Judicial Watch) had qualified for the public interest fee waiver.
In addition to SEJ and CJOG, groups signing the letter included the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Association of Health Care Journalists, Education Writers Association, Committee of Concerned Journalists, Freedom of Information Center (University of Missouri School of Journalism), Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The groups pointedly reminded incoming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of his declaration during January 2005 confirmation hearings that "open government is an important part of a free society," and urged him to live up to his pledge at those hearings to reexamine the Justice Department's FOIA policies.
"This case provides the perfect opportunity for the Department of Justice to reset its FOIA policies and put them back on the right path as Mr. Gonzales begins his tenure as Attorney General," the groups wrote.
- Text of Feb. 14, 2005, CJOG letter on fee waiver.
- PFAWF: Release of Jan. 31, 2005 (includes case documents).
- "U.S. Sets Price for Detainee File Search," Associated Press via Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 01, 2005, by Mark Sherman.
- "Freedom of Information Comes at a $372,799 Cost," Daily Business Review, Jan. 31, 2005, by Dan Christensen.
- "The Costly Right to Know" (editorial), New York Times, Feb. 2, 2005, (paid archive/free preview).
- See background on fee waivers in "How To Use the FOI Act," Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
- Previous Story: WatchDog of Jan. 12, 2005. For much more on FOIA fees and waivers, search WatchDog index for "fee."