ASNE applauds enactment of FOIA Improvement Act of 2016

The American Society of News Editors applauds President Obama's signing of S 337, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which enacted some much-needed and long-overdue reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Particular praise is also due for lawmakers who ensured that this was a truly bicameral, bipartisan effort, as evidenced by the fact that it passed both the Senate and the House by unanimous vote. This could not have occurred without the leadership of Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Reps Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), all of whom dedicated significant time and effort to this issue over the past several years.
"We are thrilled that, after years of work among members of Congress and a broad coalition of outside organizations, the federal FOIA is being updated for the 21st century," said ASNE President Pam Fine, Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community and a journalism professor at The University of Kansas. "This accomplishment of senators and representatives from both parties, working with organizations across the political spectrum, reaffirms that the Freedom of Information Act is a law that serves everyone. The People's Right to Know crosses political boundaries and exists for the common good of allowing everyone to hold our leaders accountable. These reforms will improve the public's and the press' ability to oversee the activities of government in a meaningful way."

S 337 will usher in the following key reforms to FOIA:

It codifies the "presumption of openness" that has been in place throughout the majority of the current administration, which mandates in federal law for the first time that agencies subject to FOIA disclose all information relevant to a request unless there is a foreseeable harm that would result from disclosure or a legal requirement to withhold the information.

It strengthens the independence of the Office of Government Information Services, which allows the office to more effectively hold agencies accountable for FOIA compliance and engage in meaningful mediation between requesters and agencies.

It will increase the amount of "proactive disclosure" by agencies and allow frequently requested records to be released without the need for a FOIA request.

It will make available many older documents that have historical value by creating a 25-year "sunset" on the application of FOIA Exemption 5 to the withholding of deliberative process documents.

As FOIA requests have continued to increase and agency backlogs have continued to grow in recent years, the ability to gain access to documents without a significant wait and, quite often, fight has become entirely too common. We believe that the reforms brought about by S 337 will restore access to government information through FOIA to its position as one of the most important real-time checks that we have against government waste, corruption and malfeasance. ASNE thanks Congress and the president for passing S 337.