This week's FOIA roundup: expensive calls to nowhere and protecting the right to be curious about government

This week’s FOIA roundup: expensive calls to nowhere and protecting the right to be curious about government

The week in transparency and accountability battles, threats, and wins

Written by
Edited by Katlyn Alo

Every week, MuckRock brings to you this roundup of why having access to information about what our government and officials do with our money and in our name matters and who’s working on what to keep this info flowing. What are you working on? Let us know Let us know so we can shout it out.

Get Active

If a phone company can’t connect calls… isn’t that an issue?

Not if the customers are incarcerated people and their families, it appears. Our very own senior reporter Beryl Lipton reported this week that more than half the calls to and from one small jail in Michigan weren’t completed — but the cost was still passed along to families.

We want to know more about the extent and impacts of prison privatization on outcomes for incarcerated people and their loved ones. Got a tip? Shoot Beryl a message.

State Updates

Tennessee rejects bill targeting records requests as “harassment”

By Kent Hoover

Earlier this month, the Tennessee General Assembly rejected legislation aimed at preventing people from using public records requests to harass government employees.

The legislation, SB 590, failed on a 5-4 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 18. Critics contended the bill’s definition of harassment was too subjective and could be used against citizens who simply wanted information on how their government works.

The bill was prompted by requests in the small city of Gallatin where one individual made 133 public records requests in one year, mostly to do with body camera footage and the fluoride levels in drinking water according to the Gallatin News. City officials complained the requests were keeping them from being able to do their jobs

Under the legislation, local governments could request the court to issue an injunction against an individual after they make five records requests that are judged to be harassment. The bill defined harassment as records requests “made maliciously,” that serve no “legitimate purpose,” and “seriously abuse, intimidate, threaten or harass” records custodians or other public officials. The bill also included provisions suggested by media organizations and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. For example, it specified that requests made by news organizations and academic researchers met the “legitimate purpose” test, as did requests by others intent on investigating the work of government for a public purpose. Those safeguards didn’t go far enough for committee Chairman Mike Bell.

“I’m concerned about the person who would be the political gadfly,” Bell said during debate over the legislation. “I know one of those back home. And I think you could probably ask people in local government, and they would say his activity might constitute harassment under your bill. And I just see someone who literally wants to know how government operates.”

Michigan slow-walking reforms

Detroit Free Press reporter Paul Egan found not much has changed in the year since Governor Gretchen Whitmer promised filing a FOIA request would get faster and cheaper under her watch. Michigan is a FOIA bottom-dweller, being one of only two states that exempt the Governor’s office from FOIA and one of 8 exempting the legislature. Whitmer promised to push for an end to those exemptions and make sure all state departments were fulfilling requests without additional delays and extra fees.

Egan found agencies still don’t track response times and requesters say a 10-day extension is still “the rule, not the exception.” Egan asked the Attorney General’s office why they quoted a different journalist, Jim Malewitz, almost $900 for just a FOIA request log. The Attorney General’s office responded by directing the Freep “to put that question, along with earlier questions about Attorney General Dana Nessel’s FOIA goals and the tracking of those goals, into a FOIA request.” Whomp. Whomp. More at the Freep.

New FOInsights

Surveillance on the border: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has put together an atlas of which kind of surveillance technology is being used in communities along the southern border.

More on Clearview AI (there just always seems to be more) from Buzzfeed and how everyone (colleges, the NBA, Walmart) is using all the faces.

But really, there is a LOT of information about each of us out there

Staunch believers in public information can also be equally invested in some information remaining private, right? If that’s you, check out the New York Times’ open-source anti-doxxing guide. Cool of them.

Just FOIA Fun

Because February has a spare day this year you also have ONE MORE DAY TO ENTER OUR CONTEST! So do it. File that request to make $$ and change at the same time.