THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT – WHY IT MATTERS / SIERRA BESSINGER

April 6, 2021

Since taking courses for journalism I have grown a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As a soon-to-be journalist, I am going to be using my right to gain access to information for the stories I will write when it is necessary. But, what about other students? It is just as important that all students besides journalism students are aware of the FOIA so they, too, can exercise their rights as students and as members of society to be informed.

What is FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act allows for people to request information, such as public information, agency rules, opinions, orders, records, and proceedings.

Why Should You Care?

FOIA is important to our society because it allows us to stay informed, gain insight into the economic and environmental impacts in our, and other, areas, learn about public health and safety, and hold people of power accountable.

Environmental FOIA

The Sierra Club – a major environmental group that is dedicated to protecting and helping the environment- put in an FOIA request regarding documents about harm to endangered species, this led to the U.S Court of Appeals seeing their case in United States Fish and Wildlife Service Et. AL. v. Sierra Club, INC. on November 2, 2020.

Justice Amy Coney Barnett, who just joined the supreme court in October, rejected the Environmental group’s request. This request obtained a 7-to-2 decision. In their FOIA request, available on the supreme court’s website, the Sierra Club sued the Services in the Northern District of California, to obtain the documents that were being withheld, however, the Ninth Circuit court decided that the documents were not obtainable because they represented the final opinion regarding the EPA’s 2013 proposed rule.

FOIA Protection of Documents

FOIA allows for certain documents to be withheld that fall within certain exceptions. According to the court records, the deliberation process privilege gives certain documents a shield of protection against an FOIA request. This is set in place in hopes to improve decision-making and encourage an honest and to-the-point discussion and decision.

The Sierra Club

Runs off of their national community of volunteers, advocates, and grassroots activists.

Areas of focus of the Sierra Club are:

  • Climate and Energy – influence and transformations
  • Lands, Air, Water, and Wildlife – Sierra Club members work hard to protect vital resources, natural beauty, wild creatures, and scenic landscapes
  • People and Justice – the Sierra Club protects more than just the environment; they also focus on certain social issues working for justice and equality

Fighting for FOIA

The Sierra Club was trying to obtain documents that would help them better understand what the EPA’s decision was in 2013 regarding “cooling water intake structures” which took mass amounts of water to cool industrial facilities. The studies behind the environmental impact were unclear- resulting in the Sierra Club wanting to gain information and figure out how this affected the environment and marine animals. Without these documents they were requesting by FOIA they have to do a lot more research and studying- without the help of our government.

We must continue to fight for our right to FOIA requests. As in the case with the Sierra Club, the government was able to protect their documents due to the FOIA laws, regulations, and exceptions.

Many states differ in what their FOIA request forms require, make sure to know what your state requires when you want to utilize your freedom of information and ability to hold people accountable.