After several stories about the Federal Communications Commission abusing FOIA exemptions to avoid releasing embarrassing emails, the agency appears to have switched tactics, demanding a requester provide personal information not required under the law and charging hundreds in search fees.
This month, MuckRock user Taylor Amarel, who earlier released FCC Chariman Ajit Pai’s calendar under FOIA, requested the following:
I would like to obtain all emails sent to, from, or copied to Deanne Erwin, Executive Assistant, containing any of the following non-case-sensitive key-strings: “reeses”, “ethics”, “mug”, “liberals”, or “Reese’s” from January 1, 2017 to present day.
A week later, the FCC’s Office of General Counsel - not their FOIA office - got back to Amarel, and its response was deeply worrying:
For starters, one principal is that under FOIA is that information releasable to one person should be releasable to any person. Needing a phone number and home address for the requester goes above and beyond what the Freedom of Information Act requires and simply puts up a new barrier for information that there’s clearly a lot of public interest in.
The specific identity of requester is more important if the agency needs to determine if they are “media” or a requester in another special fee category, but Amarel did not ask for such categorization.
To demand that he provide that information or his request be unilaterally closed has an obvious chilling impact on requesters seeking to better understand government operations - in this case, more about a strangely large mug in an even stranger video.
Despite that, Amarel did provide the information, and from the FCC’s response it becomes clear why the issue of fee category is paramount. By not qualifying for media status (which again, he never applied for), Amarel was subject to search fees, which came to a little over $232.
Amarel opened the request to crowdfund, which you can contribute to below, or on the request page. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the FCC for future attempts to twist the law to avoid accountability - even if it’s just a bunch of emails over a stupid coffee mug.
Image via C-SPAN