When we talk about the importance of a free press, what were really talking about is how important it is for the press to serve as a watchdog on the government. The highest responsibility of journalism is to supply the people with information about what their government is doing, so that the people can hold the government accountable, and make the best possible decisions when they vote.
But if youre not a journalist (full disclosure: I am not), you may not give a lot of thought to how journalists get that information in the first place. Official government press releases and briefings arent really the place to find information about government misconduct. Obviously, leaks are a much better source when it comes to getting the real dirt. But the recent emphasis on prosecuting leakers is likely to have a major chilling effect on that source of information.
But there is a way that journalists can get their hands on FBI records, secret military policy memos, and NSA email exchanges without having to worry about their sources getting arrested or fired.
They can ask the government for them.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that requires the government to hand over its records if someone asks for them. The act applies to federal government agencies, but every state has laws that allow the public to access its government records. Anyone can request information, whether theyre a U.S. citizen or foreign national. And anything can be requested.
A government agency can, of course, deny your request if it decides that the information youre seeking falls into an exemption category, like information that would threaten national security, or invade someones privacy. But if you think your FOIA request was unfairly denied, you can appeal, and if that doesnt work, you can sue.
Nabiha Syed, assistant general counsel for BuzzFeed, is intimately familiar with this process. A large part of her job involves getting government agencies to give up information that they would rather not share information that often ends up being crucial to BuzzFeeds reporting. She sees the right of the public to access government information as an exciting First Amendment frontier. For the most part, the First Amendment says, This is hands off, the governments not going to be involved, you guys figure out speech,' Syed says. And then you have the First Amendment right of access, which says, Yes, but also, we are going to allow you to use the law as a sword to get access to judicial proceedings, to official recordsto administrative proceedings.'
Requesting or fighting for government records is an instrumental part of BuzzFeeds reporting strategy. Such records have allowed the BuzzFeed News team to report on misconduct in death penalty executions, for-profit foster care scandals, and the widespread abuse of seasonal migrant workers. Just last month, BuzzFeed News obtained a secret Department of Defense report that stated that Chelsea Mannings disclosure of Iraq-related documents would be unlikely to have any impact on U.S. operations in Iraq (directly contradicting the governments position at Mannings trial).
To be sure, the system is far from perfect, as many information-seekers can attest. As Jason Fagone wrote in his article The Secret to Getting Top-Secret Secrets, The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966 to increase trust in government by encouraging transparency, has always been a pain in the ass. You write to an uncaring bureaucracy, you wait for months or years only to be denied or redacted into oblivion, and even if you do get lucky and extract some useful information, the world has already moved on to other topics.
But when it does work, the payoffs can be enormous. As Nabiha Syed says, How do we at least inject the information we need into the commons, into the public square, to try and heighten the conversations were having? At least getting the underlying facts out there, in ways that are hopefully more authoritative than anecdotal, I think would be really helpful.
Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute. Contact her via email at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.
- Op-ed: Did the University forget about the first amendment? - The Michigan Daily - January 18th, 2020
- Facebooks Soleimani Ban Flies in Face of First Amendment - Common Dreams - January 18th, 2020
- Trump Takes Steps to Protect the Right to Pray in Schools - CNSNews.com - January 18th, 2020
- Breaking down the first amendment lawsuit against Florida State Representative Spencer Roach - Fox 4 - January 18th, 2020
- 10 years later, Americans stand opposed to Citizens United | TheHill - The Hill - January 18th, 2020
- Letter: It's the First Amendment that needs sanctuary protection - Verde Independent - January 18th, 2020
- Merrill, St. Germain take different approaches on 2nd Amendment Sanctuary status - WJFW-TV - January 18th, 2020
- David L. Hudson Jr. | The 'bedrock principle' of the First Amendment - TribDem.com - January 7th, 2020
- Executive Order on Anti-Semitism Could Suppress First-Amendment-Protected Criticism of Israel - Reason - January 7th, 2020
- Pro/Con: Can elected officials block you on social media? Yes, the Constitution can't be applied to private tweets - Duluth News Tribune - January 7th, 2020
- How Fascism Works with Jason Stanley; Plus: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing the First Amendment - KPFA - 94.1FM - January 7th, 2020
- Five Years Later, We Still Havent Learned from the Charlie Hebdo Massacre - National Review - January 7th, 2020
- Accountability For Constitutional Violations Likely Has To Start With The Trivial - Above the Law - January 7th, 2020
- A Stunning Vote Reversal in a Controversial First Amendment Case - The Atlantic - December 18th, 2019
- Attorney John Borger, 68, longtime legal champion of the media, dies at 68 - Minneapolis Star Tribune - December 18th, 2019
- Did Schiff Poke a Hole in the First Amendment? - The New York Times - December 18th, 2019
- New Leader Of First Amendment Foundation Ready To Tackle Public Records And Fake News - WFSU - December 18th, 2019
- Supreme Court to hear Native American criminal procedure case and First Amendment question for foreign entities - JURIST - December 18th, 2019
- EFF Report Shows FBI Is Failing to Address First Amendment Harms Caused By National Security Letters - EFF - December 18th, 2019
- A Judge Temporarily Protects the NRA's First Amendment Rights - America's 1st Freedom - December 18th, 2019
- 5th Circuit judge has 'judicial change of heart' in case that could chill protests - ABA Journal - December 18th, 2019
- Attacker Causes Epileptic Seizure over the Internet - Security Boulevard - December 18th, 2019
- Trump antisemitism executive order sets up First Amendment battle - The Jerusalem Post - December 11th, 2019
- Religion news, the First Amendment and BBQ: GetReligion will soon have a new home base - GetReligion - December 11th, 2019
- W&M professor's new book examines the First Amendment in the Trump era - WYDaily - December 11th, 2019
- Nelson County board joins dozens of others to become a 2nd Amendment sanctuary - WHSV - December 11th, 2019
- Violent Protests and Free Speech: Whos to Blame for an Officers Injuries? - The New York Times - December 11th, 2019
- Mississippi Public Universities receive recognition for protecting free speech | The University of Southern Mississippi - Southern Miss Now - December 11th, 2019
- If There Are No Obama Judges or Trump Judges, Does the Constitution Permit Delaware to - Justia Verdict - December 11th, 2019
- First Amendment rights in the 2010s - UConn Daily Campus - December 8th, 2019
- State argues there is no First Amendment issue in Michelle Carter case - The Sun Chronicle - December 8th, 2019
- Zick's new book examines the First Amendment in the Trump era - William & Mary News - December 8th, 2019
- First Amendment Loses as Pipeline Industry Scores Another Win in Wisconsin - In These Times - December 8th, 2019
- A Phone-Sex Memoir Tests the Limits of Free Speech Rights - Bloomberg - December 8th, 2019
- Texas wants teacher Georgia Clark reinstated after firing over tweets - The Texas Tribune - December 8th, 2019
- Gun Rights Case Is First Before The Supreme Court In A Decade - NPR - December 8th, 2019
- Curt Levey: Trump impeachment drives Democrats' love of Constitution here's how they really feel - Fox News - December 8th, 2019
- The First Amendment is the First Line of Defense - AmmoLand Shooting Sports News - November 30th, 2019
- Want to protect First Amendment? Then maintain Second Amendment - theday.com - November 30th, 2019
- Inmate video visitation and the First Amendment: 3 landmines to avoid - CorrectionsOne - November 30th, 2019
- The Supreme Court is about to hear its biggest gun-control case in a decade - CNBC - November 30th, 2019
- Free-speech controversies not exclusive to the UI - Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette - November 30th, 2019
- The Race 2020 How terrorism started and how it's evolved Scripps National 9:55 AM, Nov - 10News - November 30th, 2019
- The holiday season is a lot bigger than you think - Herald Palladium - November 30th, 2019
- Ava DuVernay and Netflix Formally Respond to When They See Us Lawsuit, Claim Dialogue Is Protected Under First Amendment - The Root - November 30th, 2019
- Yes, Mr. Pokoski, there really is a Santa Claus(e.) - Seacoastonline.com - November 30th, 2019
- Does the First Amendment Hold at the Border? - The Atlantic - November 25th, 2019
- Nonwhites are the only high school students whose support for First Amendment has fallen: survey - The College Fix - November 25th, 2019
- Artful Teachers Teach First Amendment Thinking - Forbes - November 25th, 2019
- The First Amendment and Government Property: Free Speech Rules (Episode 8) - Reason - November 25th, 2019
- Activists say new harassment law tramples on the first amendment' - WXXI News - November 25th, 2019
- Government Tries to Regulate Drug Prices by Violating the First Amendment - Cato Institute - November 25th, 2019
- Judicial appointment a foe of the First Amendment - Daily American Online - November 25th, 2019
- 'No Safe Spaces' Documentary Warns of Dangers Facing First Amendment Rights in America - Accuracy in Academia - November 25th, 2019
- Indian Constitution: First amendment, and the last - Deccan Herald - November 25th, 2019
- Nobel laureate Smith to speak on boycotts and First Amendment - Columbia Daily Tribune - November 25th, 2019
- Florida Man Friday Saves the First Amendment | VodkaPundit - PJ Media - November 25th, 2019
- BU protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights - Binghamton University Pipe Dream - November 25th, 2019
- Happenings on the Hill - Preston Hollow People - November 25th, 2019
- Governor of Alaska: My state will be the first to comply with SCOTUS' new union ruling. - USA TODAY - November 25th, 2019
- Overington recognizes Edgars with First Amendment Recognition Award - Martinsburg Journal - November 25th, 2019
- Smith County School System sued over first amendment violations, promotion of religion - WBIR.com - November 25th, 2019
- Mary Beth Tinker to high school journalists: It's your job to speak up on behalf of others - Student Press Law Center - November 25th, 2019
- Florida education news: First Amendment rights, flu shots and another superintendents struggles - Tampa Bay Times - November 16th, 2019
- First Amendment rights are not a one-way street - The Bozeman Daily Chronicle - November 16th, 2019
- First Amendment conference explored diminishing local news as a 'crisis of democracy' - The Daily Tar Heel - November 16th, 2019
- The 'Evil' First Amendment - The American Conservative - November 16th, 2019
- First Amendment website launching by end of November - University Star - November 16th, 2019
- LTTE: We all have business exercising our First Amendment rights - Rocky Mountain Collegian - November 16th, 2019
- Trump Attack on Envoy During Testimony Raises Charges of Witness Intimidation - The New York Times - November 16th, 2019
- Facebook has a political fake news problem. Can we fix it without eroding the First Amendment? - NBC News - October 27th, 2019
- The Panhandling Problem: When public safety clashes with the 1st Amendment - WCJB - October 27th, 2019
- Can a black high school guard be fired for quoting the n-word? | TheHill - The Hill - October 27th, 2019
- The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent - The Humanist - October 27th, 2019
- Liz Cheney Calls Out Dems' New House Bill Intended to 'Circumvent the First Amendment' - Townhall - October 27th, 2019
- Mitch McConnell slams election-security bill as 'transparent attack on the First Amendment' - The Washington TImes - October 27th, 2019
- Are Corporate Employees Protected by the First Amendment? - IPWatchdog.com - August 25th, 2017
- NAACP asks for meeting with Goodell over Colin Kaepernick's First Amendment rights - CBSSports.com - August 25th, 2017
- The ACLU was practicing a core First Amendment duty - Washington Post - August 25th, 2017
- Letter: The right has hijacked the First Amendment to preach hate ... - INFORUM - August 25th, 2017