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Knight Foundation - Forecasting Freedom of Information, David Cuillier, 2017

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FORECASTING
FREEDOM OF
INFORMATION
Why it faces problems—and how
experts say they could be solved
MARCH 2017

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

­—
By David Cuillier, University of Arizona School of Journalism
A study commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

CONTENTS
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Contents

3	INTRODUCTION
5	CONTEXT
7	PROBLEMS
12	SOLUTIONS
14	

Legal Reform

20	

Public education

23	Technology
25	

Proactive disclosure

28	

Big ideas from interviewees

31	CONCLUSION
33	METHODOLOGY
35	APPENDIX
49	ENDNOTES

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

2 / 52

INTRODUCTION
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Introduction

People must have access to reliable public information to make informed
decisions and hold their elected officials accountable. Without transparent
government at all levels—local, state and federal—representative democracy
is threatened. For a generation, presidents of both parties have in different
ways tightened controls on government information. “The natural progress
of things,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “is for liberty to yield, and
government to gain ground.” 1
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation commissioned this study to
better understand the landscape involving public access to government
records by gathering information and insights from 336 freedom of
information experts—journalists, advocates, record custodians, technology
companies, scholars and others. In all, from December 2016 through
January 2017, 108 experts were interviewed and 228 surveyed online. The
study is not representative of journalists or society as a whole, but rather a
cross section of those who deal with public record laws routinely. They are
the active members, and in some cases the leaders, of America’s freedom of
information community.
Freedom of information is not decided only in Washington, D.C. All levels
of government are involved, bringing into view a diversity of government
officials. Our objective was to canvass experts to identify barriers to
information access and possible solutions, looking broadly at the law, public
education, networking and new technology.
We found dissatisfaction, uncertainty and worry.

Key points:

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

1.	 MANY EXPERTS SAY ACCESS IS WORSE TODAY COMPARED WITH
FOUR YEARS AGO: About half of the 228 experts surveyed online
reported that access to state and local records has gotten worse during
the past four years (41 percent said it stayed the same, and 13 percent
said it has gotten better2), and 41 percent said access to federal records
has worsened. “What I hear from reporters in Washington and my
students is that exemptions are being used in way too many cases and
delays are still very long,” said Leonard Downie, former Washington
Post executive editor and current Weil Family Professor of Journalism
at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and
Mass Communication. “I hope the door doesn’t get shut tighter.”
2.	 NEARLY 4 IN 10 SEE A RISE IN DENIALS: Though most respondents (57
percent) said denials have stayed the same during the past four years, 38
percent said they have been denied records at any level of government
more frequently, and only 6 percent said denials have decreased. Rising

3 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Introduction

denials are particularly acute at the local level, where news organizations
have cut some 20,000 journalists since the 2007-09 recession. Timothy
Bolger, managing editor of the independent online Long Island Press,
said he did not realize the extent of the problem until he conducted an FOI
audit of nearly 200 municipalities on Long Island, N.Y., in 2016. “This past
year has really opened my eyes. There’s a good number of agencies that
just don’t follow the law. I hadn’t paid that much attention before, but I
didn’t realize how much of it was an epidemic.”3
3.	 OVERWHELMINGLY, EXPERTS PREDICTED THAT ACCESS WILL GET
WORSE: Nearly 9 out of 10 predicted that access to government will
worsen because of the new presidential administration. “I think it’s
going to be a backyard brawl,” said Ted Bridis, investigations editor for
The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. Over the past several months,
nonprofit organizations scrambled to save data purged from federal
websites and listed the many restrictions placed on communications
with the public.
This report lays out problems with freedom of information and synthesizes
solutions aimed at making freedom of information laws work as their
creators intended—as an open, honest way for the public to know what its
government is doing.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

4 / 52

CONTEXT
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Context

A well-informed community, one that can determine and act on its true
interests, is essential to a well-functioning representative democracy.4
Freedom of information laws throughout the country clearly state the
importance of deferring to openness and strictly limiting secrecy.5 We
know open-record and open-meeting laws benefit society.6 For decades,
journalists and social justice groups have revealed extraordinary stories
through freedom of information laws.7
Some federal agencies have made strides toward improving their systems.8
Government officials are posting more data online proactively than in
previous years, and thousands of record custodians, journalists and activists
work daily to connect citizens with information about their government.
Amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act, the latest in 2016,
have offered improvements.9 If the new mandates of the law are fully funded,
federal freedom of information would indeed be faster, cheaper and better.
“The progress being made in some agencies and the government as a whole,
especially in regard to technology, is better,” said Kevin Goldberg, counsel for
the American Society of News Editors. “I am a little worried for the next four
years.”
A growing body of evidence indicates that all levels of government in the
United States are becoming more secretive and controlling of information.10
Experts believe the body of public information is growing faster than
the government’s willingness or ability to release it. Agencies are using
exemptions more liberally to hide information. Journalists say it is getting
more difficult to get information from the federal government, even in
just asking for facts from government employees.11 Community journalists
are hard hit.12 Reporters have become so frustrated that more than 50
journalism organizations sent a letter to the Obama White House in 2015
urging a stop to the excessive secrecy.13 A delegation met with White House
staff to discuss the problem but saw no action.14

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

On paper, public record laws in the United States are weaker than those of
most other nations and continue to fall further behind. In an international
ranking of the world’s 111 national freedom of information laws, U.S. FOIA
rates 57th, behind such countries as Uganda, Kyrgyzstan and Russia
(Mexico’s law is rated No. 1).15 Access to information in the United States
remains fraught with the same problems noted more than 50 years ago,
before the U.S. FOIA was passed in 1966.16
To make matters worse, public record laws are not worth anything if a
nation’s leaders have the power to decide a law does not mean what it
says. In interviews with 60 journalists in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro,
Lindita Camaj, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, found
that agencies have used freedom of information statutes to justify delaying
or ignoring requests and to target critical media and give favorable media

5 / 52

preferential treatment. “This research suggests that governments can use
FOI laws to punish, intimidate, manipulate news media, and control the news
agenda—turning the FOI concept on its head.” 17

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Context

Laws that do work can become targets. “Every year for the past five years
we’ve had a massive onslaught of efforts to gut the law,” said Michele EarlHubbard, a media law attorney in Washington state. “In Washington it’s
getting worse, and it’s always horrendous at the federal level. I feel like my
government is less accountable than it was 10 years ago. It’s bad. It’s really,
really bad.”
The changing media landscape seems to make freedom of information more
vulnerable. Even before digital-age disruption of traditional media economics
led to newsroom cuts of 40 percent or more, journalists made up a relatively
small proportion of public record requests, between 5 and 16 percent
depending on the study. Commercial requesters dominate the field.18 The
number of federal FOIA requests submitted by local newspaper journalists
dropped 50 percent from 2005 to 2010.19 On top of that, news organizations,
particularly in community journalism, are less likely to sue for public records.20
The last presidential administration saw the federal government spying on
journalists and a record for both cracking down on leakers and withholding
public information. Although Obama promulgated an executive order to
increase openness on his first day in office, after a year only 13 of 90 federal
agencies surveyed had taken any action to improve freedom of information,
and after two years only about half had acted.
In the early days of the Trump administration, there have been reports
of removal of data on climate change and other issues from government
websites. President Trump has also called some mainstream journalism
“fake news” and the “enemy of the American people.” There has also been
a tolerance to date of federal agencies creating new barriers to record
requesters, such as the FBI floating, then rescinding requirements that
records requests be submitted by fax or letter, not email.
Any freedom of information study faces daunting challenges. Federal FOI
data are not current, nor easily mapped across all the agencies. State and
local data also are difficult to assemble, if at all. Those who would study
freedom of information are left to their own devices. Studies by nonprofit
groups show troubling trends as well as FOI audits of state and local
governments that reveal violations at all levels.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

This study relied on the insights of hundreds of experts and users of FOI
laws to lay out the key barriers preventing citizens and journalists from
seeing what their government is doing. The report then provides solutions
suggested by the experts that could rebalance the scales, in legal reform,
enforcement, public education, proactive disclosure, digital tools and
improved coordination.

6 / 52

PROBLEMS
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Problems

The freedom of information community describes the current state of
access to records at all levels of government as fraught with challenges. This
study’s online survey listed eight issues, asking respondents if they were
problematic and, if so, to what degree. Majorities found all eight issues to be
at least somewhat problematic. “FOIA has always been a miserable process,”
summed up Lynn Oberlander, press freedom litigation attorney for First Look
Media. “It’s a very awkward, expensive process where the ‘noes’ are much
more frequent than the ‘yeses.’
Government delays in responding to FOI requests topped the list of
troubling issues, with 3 out of 4 respondents saying they are either “very”
or “extremely” problematic. The survey’s seven other issues areas, detailed
in the accompanying charts, were: excessive redaction, ignored requests,
excessive search and copy fees, a general lack of enforcement, overuse
of exemptions and data/technology problems. But “the biggest problem,”
emphasized David Greene, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, “is that it just takes too long.”
In follow-up interviews, experts identified further issues, including arbitrary
denials, cultures of secrecy and hostility toward requesters. All in all, said
one respondent, “the laws are woefully outdated and the training of public
officials as to the requirements of the law is awful.”

Delays and procedural roadblocks
ISSUE

N

(1 – 4, higher is worse)

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

MEAN

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

DELAYS

188

3.09

5.3% (10)

20.7% (39)

34.0% (64)

39.9% (75)

EXCESSIVE
REDACTION

184

2.47

21.7% (40)

32.1% (59)

23.4% (43)

22.8% (42)

REQUESTS
IGNORED

185

2.44

20.5% (38)

36.2% (67)

21.6% (40)

21.6% (40)

SEARCH /
REDACTION
FEES

184

2.09

34.8% (64)

36.4% (67)

13.6% (25)

15.2% (28)

COPY FEES

188

1.97

38.8% (73)

37.8% (71)

11.2% (21)

12.2% (23)

7 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Problems

The study indicates significant problems in how public record requests are
administered. When the government waits too long, charges too much, holds
back too much or simply ignores a request, seeking public information can
become an exercise in frustration. That delays are the leading trouble spot is
not new, 21 despite efforts to speed responses at the state and federal levels.
“We’re trying to find some sort of solution to deal with the large request and
the time that it takes government to respond,” said Robert Freeman, who has
been executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government
for 42 years. Attorneys, in particular, complained of increased “gaming of
the system” by agencies that contrive legal arguments for keeping records
secret, such as denying fee waivers, redacting information as nonresponsive
to the request, and saying records cannot be released because they are not
formatted in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Other noted roadblocks included hiding records by contracting with private
companies, evading transparency through emails on private accounts, and
excessive fees, particularly for search, retrieval and redaction.

Lack of enforcement
ISSUE

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

1.107

18.4% (34)

(1  4, higher

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

is worse)

LACK OF
ENFORCEMENT

185

2.76

20.5% (38)

27.6% (51)

33.5% (62)

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

The second most significant problem identified by respondents was a lack of
enforcement of public records law, with 3 of 5 respondents saying it is very
or extremely problematic. “It would be nice if there were criminal penalties in
the law that would target an agency or people who ignore the law,” said Jack
Gillum, an investigative reporter for The Associated Press. “I can’t run red
lights. I have to pay my taxes. I have to follow the rules. It’s just frustrating
that these same governments that tell us to follow the rules don’t follow their
own rules.” Many experts pointed to the need for more time-consuming and
sometimes costly litigation, the primary recourse for enforcing toothless
public record laws. Nate Jones, from the National Security Archive, predicts
his organization will need to sue for records more in the next four years.
“With Obama we had success negotiating,” Jones said, “but I suspect we will
have to turn to the courts more now.”

8 / 52

Exemptions and waning political will
ISSUE

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

1.026

12.3% (23)

(1 –4, higher

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Problems

is worse)

OVERUSE OF
EXEMPTIONS

187

2.70

23.0% (43)

30.5% (57)

34.2% (64)

Experts noted a significant increase in exemptions to public record laws
passed at the state level, particularly in the name of protecting personal
privacy. Press associations and state FOI groups have difficulty monitoring
all the efforts to weaken state laws. Emerging legislation that results in
widespread record closures sometimes slides through before FOI groups
can effectively mobilize. Congress improved FOIA in summer 2016 through
the FOIA Improvement Act, although some experts expressed concerns
about the future.
Those interviewed also expressed concern that longtime champions of
FOIA, such as U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, John Cornyn and Chuck Grassley, will
eventually retire and few junior members appear ready to champion records
access. With the exception of the News Media for Open Government lobbyist,
Rick Blum, those at OpenTheGovernment.org and a few other industry
lobbyists, the news business has been relatively reluctant to directly lobby or
finance pro-FOI candidates. Many of those interviewed noted that it would be
a good time to begin active campaigning for FOI with members of Congress
and legislatures. “We had a member of Congress come in and tell us that
he never checks the phone logs—an intern will pick up the phone and take
notes,” said Jake Horowitz, founder of Mic.com. “What does influence him
is when people come to his district and talks on a human level of what it is
important to them. He is a human, and powerful stories are powerful stories.”

Technology lags
ISSUE

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

0.957

22.2% (42)

(1 –4, higher

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

is worse)
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

ELECTRONIC /
DATA ISSUES

189

2.26

43.4% (82)

20.6% (39)

Some experts, particularly those in government or at the federal level, noted
the problems created by archaic systems and processes used by agencies to
create, maintain and disseminate records. Processes vary widely from state
to state and town to town. Requesters complain of being provided paper

13.8% (26)

9 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Problems

printouts or PDF files when a digital spreadsheet would be cheaper, faster
and more easily analyzed. “If they give me 10,000 pages in PDFs, it’s not very
useful,” said Joshua Hatch, president of the Online News Association. “If I
get records on punch cards, then it’s useless.” Other challenges include how
to record, search and disseminate government communications posted to
social media channels, such as Twitter or Facebook.
It should go without saying that computers manage information better than
filing cabinets and paper. Nonprofit efforts to aid FOI through digital tools
have been successful, such as MuckRock’s request services, recently paired
with FOIA Machine. Max Galka, creator of FOIA Mapper, said collaboration
is needed to build out even more tools. “Everyone is wandering in the dark
trying to figure things out themselves,” he said.

Problem areas cited in interviews
Throughout the interviews, respondents expressed concern that the public
did not understand the rights they have and how those rights are threatened.
Citizens’ fear of privacy invasion can overshadow the public benefits of
open records, 22 and politicians have leveraged that fear to close records
that would embarrass officials or expose inefficiency or corruption. Public
approval of the press is low, 23 and nonprofit efforts to promote freedom
of information have waned in recent years. 24 Research has provided some
insights into how people think about FOI, 25 such as the fact that people
highly support the concept in general but have lower regard for some of the
specifics, such as open tax records or divorce files. While some progress has
been made on how to increase First Amendment literacy, 26 specific researchbased messages to increase FOI literacy have yet to be identified.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Many respondents in this study offered messages they think would resonate
best with the public, but they were frequently different and contradictory:
focus on the horror stories of bad government, emphasize the positive
stories that come from FOI, point out records that help in day-to-day
life, espouse the democratic principles of freedom, hit people hard with
emotional appeals, highlight journalists’ stories based on FOIA, emphasize
that it is the citizen’s right, not just for journalists. Nike has “Just do it.” The
dairy industry has “Got Milk?” FOI has no such business-funded brand or
campaign. “We are dealing with a crisis that goes way beyond access to
government information,” said Jane Kirtley, former director of the Reporters
Committee for Freedom of the Press and current Silha Professor of Media
Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. “We are talking about public
trust in institutions. I am appalled by the situation that exists and continues
to exist. I’m not talking about Trump per se. I’m talking about the idea that
everyone is out there with an agenda telling a story their way, so might as
well just go along with your own media source. My point is, how do you
persuade people that open government is essential?”
Respondents pointed out that many of the organizations making up the FOI
advocacy community are struggling with major budget obstacles that in

10 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Problems

many ways mirror those faced by the legacy news industry: Their traditional
revenues are lower and new revenues have not filled the gap. “We just gotta
get more funders,” said one respondent. Included in the “new money” group
are both new media companies and foundations focused on the digital
transformation of news. If the feared assaults on freedom of information
come to pass, both new and traditional philanthropic supporters of FOI
may increase giving, as they did during the public information rollback that
followed the 9 / 11 attacks.
The news industry has cut back more than financial support. Its economic
problems have resulted in cuts affecting FOI litigation. In addition, general
newsroom cuts result in journalists pressed for time and less able to
pursue records and fight for them. 27 This has been particularly felt among
community journalists. Additionally, the temporary nature of project-based
foundation funding can hamper long-term planning and recruitment. As
is the case with nonprofit news organizations, nonprofit FOI groups need
general support grants.
Organizations also are hampered because elected presidents of journalism
organizations come and go. “A primary challenge is the churn of volunteer
leaders,” said Joe Skeel, executive director of the Society of Professional
Journalists. “Few organizational leaders focus on journalism as a whole—
that’s the piece needed for long-term meaningful partnerships.”
Hundreds of FOI advocacy groups, with different priorities, often coordinate
their efforts like cats, described by one respondent as “wet, surly and difficult
to herd.” Many respondents, however, noted that coordination is improving
among journalism groups, as illustrated in recent years by combined
conferences, sharing of administrative duties, and joint grant proposals.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

11 / 52

SOLUTIONS
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Survey respondents indicated that all of the 21 potential solutions listed in
the survey are important to some degree in fixing FOI problems, from more
resources for litigation to continuing national Sunshine Week.
Here are the most favored solutions and the percentage of respondents
saying the solution is either very or extremely important.
•	

CUSTODIAN TRAINING, 83 percent—This means officials and
government employees who handle public record requests would know
how to follow freedom of information policy.

•	

REQUIRING ATTORNEY FEE PROVISIONS, 80 percent—This means
making changes to the law that would require governments that lose
in court to pay the attorney fees of those who rightfully sought public
records and won.

•	

ADDING FINES/PUNISHMENT TO THE LAWS, 77 percent—
Governments and/or their employees that fail to follow procedures to
release records would be fined or prosecuted for a criminal act. “We
need to make real penalties for errant government officials who violate
the FOIA,” said one respondent.

•	

ADVOCACY TO INCREASE FOI SUPPORT, 75 percent—This refers to
public education and other methods of helping citizens understand why
laws exist requiring freedom of information.

•	

ALTERNATIVES TO RESOLVING DISPUTES, 74 percent—These are
methods that allow freedom of information disputes to be resolved
quickly and without costly legal battles.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

The accompanying chart shows how the solutions ranked among the online
survey respondents. Again, though some methods ranked higher than
others, it should be noted that not one solution was thought by a majority to
be unimportant. In other words, there are many moving parts in every public
records request, and the FOI community believed virtually all of it can be
improved. That includes the skill of the person making the request; the way
the request is made; the format of the information being requested; the ease
with which it can be found; the fees proposed to find and reproduce it; the
skill of those responding to the request; the decision to release all, part or
none of the record; appeal processes, including courts, the laws and rules
under which all of this happens; enforcement provisions; and legislative and
public awareness of the need for freedom of information in the first place.

12 / 52

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

REQUIRING
ATTORNEY FEE
PROVISIONS

178

3.31

0.897

4.5% (8)

15.7% (28)

23.6% (42)

56.2% (100)

CUSTODIAN
TRAINING

183

3.30

0.827

3.3% (6)

13.7% (25)

32.8% (60)

50.3% (92)

ADDING FINES /
PUNISHMENT
TO LAWS

180

3.23

0.962

7.2% (13)

15.6% (28)

24.4% (44)

52.8% (95)

ADVOCACY TO
INCREASE FOI
SUPPORT

182

3.08

0.889

5.5% (10)

19.2% (35)

37.4% (68)

37.9% (69)

ALTERNATIVES
TO RESOLVING
DISPUTES

180

3.06

0.857

3.9% (7)

22.2% (40)

38.3% (69)

35.6% (64)

MORE FUNDING
FOR AGENCIES

184

3.04

0.904

4.9% (9)

23.9% (44)

33.2% (61)

38.0% (70)

TRACKING OF
PROPOSED
LEGISLATION

182

3.02

0.857

2.7% (5)

27.5% (50)

35.2% (64)

34.6% (63)

LITIGATORS TO
SUE ON BEHALF

183

3.00

0.839

2.7% (5)

26.8% (49)

38.3% (70)

32.2% (59)

MORE
FUNDING FOR
FOI PROJECTS

178

2.97

0.843

3.4% (6)

27.0% (48)

39.3% (70)

30.3% (54)

FUNDS FOR
SUING

183

2.93

0.887

4.4% (8)

29.5% (54)

34.4% (63)

31.7% (58)

COORDINATION
OF FOI GROUPS

179

2.88

0.895

5.6% (10)

29.6% (53)

35.8% (64)

29.1% (52)

PUBLIC
EDUCATION AND
TRAINING

184

2.86

0.882

5.4% (10)

30.4% (56)

37.0% (68)

27.2% (50)

FOI EDUCATION
IN SCHOOLS

183

2.83

0.977

9.8% (18)

27.9% (51)

31.7% (58)

30.6% (56)

REQUESTER
TRAINING

183

2.78

0.868

5.5% (10)

34.4% (63)

36.6% (67)

23.5% (43)

LEGAL HOTLINES

182

2.77

0.868

5.5% (10)

35.2% (64)

36.3% (66)

23.1% (42)

LOBBYING AND
CAMPAIGNING

178

2.74

1.043

14.6% (26)

27.0% (48)

28.7% (51)

29.8% (53)

DATABASE OF
STATE FOI LAWS

183

2.69

0.969

12.0% (22)

30.6% (56)

33.3% (61)

24.0% (44)

LEGAL AID TO
SUE PRO SE

181

2.65

0.916

9.4% (17)

37.0% (67)

32.6% (59)

21.0% (38)

FOI RESEARCH

179

2.62

0.881

7.8% (14)

41.3% (74)

31.8% (57)

19.0% (34)

CONTINUING
177
SUNSHINE WEEK

2.59

0.95

12.4% (22)

36.2% (64)

31.1% (55)

20.3% (36)

RATING OF
STATE FOI LAWS

2.37

0.969

21.3% (39)

33.9% (62)

31.1% (57)

13.7% (25)

183

13 / 52

CROSSCUTTING SOLUTIONS
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Interviews and the survey open-ended responses resulted in hundreds
more recommendations, ranging from the practical to the idealistic. Michael
Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock, noted that the FOI community comes up
with its best ideas when it works together. MuckRock itself joined forces with
FOIA Machine last year. “It’s a relatively close-knit community,” he said. “A
strength is that it is decentralized, and I think for the most part everyone is
open and supportive with few exceptions.”
Though this survey indicated which solutions were most popular, the bigger
question is: How can they be achieved? To cut through the complexity, the
solutions were grouped into categories. Additional solutions were offered in
the open-ended survey questions and study interviews along with comments
made at recent meetings of FOIA experts.
These crosscutting ideas are not meant to be final answers; the ingredients
of each can be deconstructed and reassembled into another set of
combinations. But they illustrate how actions big and small could have a
major impact on the free flow of the public’s information.

Legal Reform
SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.897

4.5% (8)

15.7% (28)

23.6% (42)

56.2% (100)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

REQUIRING
ATTORNEY FEE
PROVISIONS

178

3.31

PUSH FOR ATTORNEY FEE PROVISIONS NATIONWIDE

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

One of the most highly rated solutions was to add attorney fee provisions in
every state requiring judges to award attorney fees when plaintiffs prevail
in court. “The system doesn’t work unless there is an attorney fee provision,”
said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.
Experts said this single addition to every public records law could do the
most toward improving FOI: It would reward attorneys who successfully
help citizens and community journalists who seek to use the laws, and
dramatically reduce the litigation funds needed to be raised from the private
sector or foundations. It would also make agencies, particularly small ones
in rural communities, think twice before violating the law, which is often the
case in states that already have such provisions.

14 / 52

Tim Crews, publisher of the 3,000-circulation Sacramento Valley Mirror,
said he has been successful suing for records in large part because of the fee
provision in California. “A lot of the little-town reporters are intimidated by
the system,” Crews said. “It would be a lot more difficult if we didn’t have the
fee-shifting provision.”
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

An organized effort would be needed to integrate this provision in every state,
perhaps as the Student Press Law Center is successfully doing with its “New
Voices” campaign to persuade legislatures to adopt laws protecting student
journalists’ rights. 28

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.962

7.2% (13)

15.6% (28)

24.4% (44)

52.8% (95)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

ADDING FINES /
PUNISHMENT
TO LAWS

180

3.23

CREATE AND ENFORCE PENALTIES
More than 3 of 4 experts suggested that it is very or extremely important to
incorporate stiffer penalties into all public record laws, such as Washington
state’s law that allows a judge to impose a fine of up to $100 per day for each
record not handed over. 29 A U.S. FOIA amendment proposed in the House in
2016 would have resulted in employees being disciplined or fired for violating
the law. Many public record laws already have codified legal repercussions,
but they are rarely enforced.
“We need to get public agency people to take this seriously,” said Lucy Dalglish,
former director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
and current dean of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of
Journalism. “There have to be some benchmarks in the law or incentives. If you
blow a deadline, then all fees are waived. If you declare information that has
been opened is now closed, the agency has to pay a fine or employees lose their
job. Sanctions for open record violations have to be related to money.”
REDUCE OR ELIMINATE COPY FEES

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Copy and search fees contribute relatively little toward the expense of
administering public records requests, research indicates, yet pose
a significant barrier to requesters, especially citizens and community
journalists. One analysis of federal FOIA indicates that copy fee income
has accounted for only 6 percent of agencies’ FOIA expenses since 1975.30
Requesters should campaign to eliminate fees altogether. “It’s become
very expensive searching for and copying records. … Fee issues need to be
addressed,” said Jason Leopold, a tenacious journalist from BuzzFeed who
frequently requests records and files lawsuits. At minimum, agencies should
not be able to charge fees for search, retrieval and redaction.
15 / 52

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.857

2.7% (5)

27.5% (50)

35.2% (64)

34.6% (63)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

TRACKING OF
PROPOSED
LEGISLATION

182

3.02

TRACK LEGISLATIVE PROPOSALS IN REAL TIME
Create a mechanism to monitor proposed exemptions at all levels
of government to identify emerging issues quickly and then mobilize
organizations. Currently, many organizations issue updates only to their own
members and followers. The irony: Many of the organizations represent
mass communicators, yet there is no comprehensive current events system
for freedom of information at all levels of government. “We need to be able to
put the word out quickly when there is an acute threat,” said Frank LoMonte,
executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Or when groups
blanket legislatures nationwide with targeted exemptions. Our enemies are
good at those 50-state coordinated campaigns.”

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.881

7.8% (14)

41.3% (74)

31.8% (57)

19.0% (34)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

FOI RESEARCH

179

2.62

COLLABORATE TO PROVIDE USEFUL, STRATEGIC RESEARCH
Research that identifies key issues and debunks myths will lead to best
practices in the access community and among lawmakers and the public. An
up-to-date database of state FOI laws would be useful in an interface that
allows easy comparison. Developing model language for digital-age public
record laws can improve their chances of legislative adoption. Insights into
the cost to society of secrecy and the economic benefits of FOI could speed
approval of better policies. Researchers could examine local-level FOI costs
in different states, tallying how much the government spends losing court
cases and the money or lives saved through disclosure of records.
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Lisette Garcia of the FOIA Resource Center, for example, contends that little
empirical evidence supports the common bureaucratic claim that agencies
need more money to release records properly. “I can tell you a lot of these
conclusions are false,” she said. “It’s feeding the government’s secrecy
machine. We need studies to find exactly where the money is going with
FOIA.”

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

On the journalism side is the persistent myth that impact cannot be
measured. James Hamilton of Stanford University, author of the awardwinning book Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative
Journalism, showed otherwise. He calculated, for example, that every dollar
spent on investigative reporting results in at least $100 in benefits to the
public. He also determined that 40 percent of investigative stories that
trigger policy change are based on public records. “The government does
cost-benefit analysis all the time when considering new legislation,” Hamilton
said. “It can certainly be done.”

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

1.043

14.6% (26)

27.0% (48)

28.7% (51)

29.8% (53)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

LOBBYING AND
CAMPAIGNING

178

2.74

CULTIVATE FOI-FRIENDLY POLITICIANS
Adopt practices of other fields and industries by identifying FOI-positive
politicians at the state and federal levels, educate leaders and their staffs,
and help them get elected and stay in office. Task an organization to educate
and rate politicians on FOI and a separate lobbying organization to fund
campaigns. Some 501(c)(6) journalism and FOI groups can lobby and even
endorse and fund campaigns, if they wish. For example, in 2014 the Society
of Professional Journalists started an endowed First Amendment Forever
Fund to ensure that press advocacy can be funded for generations. The fund
requires an infusion of millions of dollars for national impact. “I think we need
to cultivate the next set of true champions,” said Rick Blum, director of News
Media for Open Government (formerly called the Sunshine in Government
Initiative), which lobbies for FOI on behalf of news organizations. “It is difficult
to replace the long history of Sen. Patrick Leahy.” So much of an agency’s
culture can be affected by leadership, said Patrice McDermott, executive
director of OpenTheGovernment.org. “There needs to be a cultural change
inside the government where they realize that FOIA is not separate from
their mission,” McDermott said. Given the track record of recent presidents,
that responsibility will rest with Congress, said Richard Tofel, president
of ProPublica. “If someone were running Congress and interested in real
congressional power like they were in the ’70s, then I think we would see
better laws,” he said.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

17 / 52

Litigation and enforcement
SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.887

4.4% (8)

29.5% (54)

34.4% (63)

31.7% (58)

(1 –4, higher
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

is worse)

FUNDS FOR
SUING

183

2.93

INCREASE DIRECT FUNDING FOR LITIGATION
While some groups help litigate major cases that could affect legal precedent,
average community journalists or citizens may still find themselves alone
when seeking a police report or school record. “The reality is we need big
sources of funds for this fight, and not just in Washington, D.C.,” said Mal
Leary, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “It’s every
state and territory.”
There are modest sources of funds to help requesters sue. The Knight FOI
Fund—through the National Freedom of Information Coalition—provides
court filing fees. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund
pays other legal costs but does not have enough to serve demand. Other such
funds in the United States range from First Look Media’s Press Freedom
Litigation Fund to crowdfunded experiments and individual campaigns.
There is no major, comprehensive money source for FOI litigation for
journalists who do not work at major national news organizations.
BETTER PROMOTE (AND EXPAND) LITIGATION PARTNERSHIPS
Legal help exists more widely in nonmonetary forms, but not enough
journalists know that. More promotion would increase general industry
awareness of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Yale
Law School Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic (and soon the
Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University), which pursue
cases in partnership with journalists and media organizations. These
organizations, along with the Student Press Law Center, provide invaluable
advice and information.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

The Knight Foundation endowed a litigation fund at the Reporter’s Committee,
helped expand the Yale clinic’s capacity, partnered with Columbia to create
the $60 million litigation and research institute there and helped the Student
Press Law Center create an endowment. These are permanent legal
resources that champion freedom of information and free expression, and
should be universally known.
News organizations that partner with nonprofits to win public records
cases must do a better job crediting those organizations and explaining to
their readers the precise public information sought and why the court said
18 / 52

it should be released. FOI contests and digital pats on the back by advocacy
groups through social media could recognize the news organizations (old
and new) that still pay for lawsuits, including The New York Times and The
Associated Press, which routinely litigate for federal records.31
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Newsrooms can reduce costs by jointly pursuing FOI requests and litigation.
Under a president “who has contempt for journalists,” said Charles Lewis,
founder of the Center for Public Integrity, “we need newsrooms to stand up
to what’s going to happen here.”
CREATE A STATE FOI LITIGATION NETWORK
A network of university law clinics could help coordinate FOI litigation
at the state level. In addition to taking on cases, a nationwide state
litigation network could coordinate a coalition of attorneys willing to take
on FOI litigation on contingency or pro bono. A network of legal clinics
could accelerate efforts to get attorney fee provisions in every state law
to guarantee payment to lawyers who win cases. Ideally, at least one
attorney per state could help each of the open government coalitions there,
perhaps assisted by the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “The
average citizen is fighting with the school board or town council,” said one
respondent. “They aren’t fighting with the federal government. The emphasis
really needs to be on state laws. That’s where the bulk of citizen engagement
is.” That’s why an easy-to-use database, perhaps modeled on the federal
FOIA Wiki, should cover all courts down to the most local. David Schulz, codirector of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law
School, is a potential facilitator of a network of transparency law clinics. “One
of our goals is to see if we can coordinate law clinics,” Schulz said. “We need
to leverage this work and create a community of transparency lawyers.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is another potential
facilitator. Its leader, Bruce Brown, has extensively studied law clinics
nationally.
SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.857

3.9% (7)

22.2% (40)

38.3% (69)

35.6% (64)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

ALTERNATIVES
TO RESOLVING
DISPUTES

180

3.06

INCREASE ALTERNATIVES TO LITIGATION
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Litigation alternatives include independent agencies with the power to
compel government officials to release records. For example, Connecticut’s
Freedom of Information Commission hears complaints and can require
agencies to provide records. Countries such as Mexico have established
similar independent agencies. A new court service in Ohio provides
denied requesters the ability to pay $25 and have an attorney hired by
the Court of Claims make a determination. So far the system appears to
be helpful, according to Cleveland WOIO-TV reporter Dani Carlson, who

19 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

sought disciplinary records from a city in fall 2016. “This gives me another
option to actually get the public records we are entitled to,” Carlson said.
“Before, cities would just ignore your request. I hope everyone starts doing
this. I’m all for this. Another tool in the tool belt.” Similarly, the federal
Office of Government Information Services should have the authority to
compel disclosure, or Congress or federal courts should create a separate
independent agency to do so.

Public education
SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.889

5.5% (10)

19.2% (35)

37.4% (68)

37.9% (69)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

ADVOCACY TO
INCREASE FOI
SUPPORT

182

3.08

LAUNCH A MAJOR PUBLIC AWARENESS CAMPAIGN
Raise the money or pro bono support to retain a professional advertising/
marketing firm to identify the best approach to a long-term public
awareness campaign. Foundations interested in social justice, civil society
or good government could be brought together to consider funding, and
PSA endorsements from celebrities could be sought to promote freedom of
information.
Historically, campaigns have had to be larger, focusing on the entire First
Amendment, to get much attention on television. In 2002, a short-lived
series of pro bono First Amendment PSAs urged Americans to cherish their
freedoms in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Campaigns came and went:
Channel One, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National
Association of Broadcasters. A project for actors to support Sunshine Week
also came and went.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

The most progress on First Amendment messages has been made by Ken
Paulson, former USA Today editor, president of the Newseum Institute’s
First Amendment Center, and creator of Freedom Sings to promote the
First Amendment. He began this effort in 2007 to create a public advocacy
campaign for the First Amendment, called 1 for All. The process he used
could be a model for development of FOI messages.
The long-term downward trend of public trust in the news media and other
American institutions cries out for a sustained, even permanent, campaign.
Would the narrower focus of FOI allow a campaign to break through into
sustained (and potentially costly) television and digital media when larger
20 / 52

First Amendment campaigns have not? “There is a lack of understanding
of FOI by the general public and why it’s necessary,” said Katherine Garner,
former director and current vice president of the National Freedom of
Information Coalition. “Public education is what we need, with true market
research.”
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.95

12.4% (22)

36.2% (64)

31.1% (55)

20.3% (36)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

CONTINUING
177
SUNSHINE WEEK

2.59

EXPAND AND DIGITIZE SUNSHINE WEEK
The activities promoted by Sunshine Week—untold hundreds of news stories,
cartoons, opinion pieces, surveys, speeches, workshops, proclamations,
press releases and legislation—need to be more common year-round, rather
than only during the week of Bill of Rights author James Madison’s birthday in
mid-March. That the week works seems obvious; it has been a focal point for
collaboration, new legislation and education. But it could be widely expanded
from newspaper and nonprofits into television and digital media. “We have
to reimagine it, redo it and start fresh,” said Barbara Petersen, executive
director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, which helped launch
the original Sunshine Sunday in Florida.
Imagine bursts of sunshine all year long in social media on dozens of
platforms, using everything from promotional FOI bots to old-fashioned
YouTube videos. 32 Imagine a special icon on every story in every media outlet
done with public records requested under freedom of information laws.
Imagine technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter taking
up the cause.
At the same time, Sunshine Week could still remain; it has for a decade
been a focal point, a “news peg” for journalists to write about how people
benefit from FOI. As a week it is as strong as the number and quality of the
organizations that participate, including the American Library Association
and the League of Women Voters. Regular evaluation would continually
improve its reach, public education effectiveness and penetration of
government at different levels.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

21 / 52

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.977

9.8% (18)

27.9% (51)

31.7% (58)

30.6% (56)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

FOI EDUCATION
IN SCHOOLS

183

2.83

INCREASE FOI EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS
Civics education in general suffers in the schools. The role of freedom
of information is often relegated to journalism classes, if taught at all.
Partnerships could be forged with groups to integrate FOI education in the
schools; news literacy and FOI literacy are, at minimum, elements of civic
literacy and are closely correlated.33 A new Illinois law, for example, requires
high school students to “acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and
attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens
throughout their lives.” 
Studies could pinpoint what K–12 education and university requirements
cover. Add to that ongoing studies of what works and what does not in the
teaching of digital, media, news and civics literacy. Freedom of information
understanding cuts across all these areas. It could be incorporated into the
new online news literacy teaching from The News Literacy Project and the
Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University as well as the digital
lessons and games in popular online civics education projects such as iCivics.
“Invest in civics and digital skills-building for every person in the country so
that nobody is left on the other side of the divide,” said Alex Howard, deputy
director of the Sunlight Foundation. “Every person in high school should
receive education on their rights in law and how government works, and
all students should submit a public record request and complete a project
engaging with local government.”
At minimum, the experts argued, every journalism student in a program
accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass
Communications should know how to effectively file an FOIA request.34
Why not actually file one, since a federal request can take just minutes with
MuckRock? “We have to get colleges teaching public record laws to all
journalism students,” said Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror. “It’s
more important than learning how to cover a football game.”

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

22 / 52

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

CUSTODIAN
TRAINING

183

3.30

0.827

3.3% (6)

13.7% (25)

32.8% (60)

50.3% (92)

PUBLIC
EDUCATION AND
TRAINING

184

2.86

0.882

5.4% (10)

30.4% (56)

37.0% (68)

27.2% (50)

REQUESTER
TRAINING

183

2.78

0.868

5.5% (10)

34.4% (63)

36.6% (67)

23.5% (43)

TRAINING FOR ALL
Journalists and other frequent information requesters need more training
in access to public records, many respondents said, especially at the state
and local levels. “The answer lies in education, No. 1,” said Robert Freeman,
executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government. “It’s
more important than ever that we have smart, smart professional journalists,
because anyone can establish a blog or website and it’s harder to tell what’s
true and what’s not. We need people who the public can rely upon for
objective information.”
Government employees, too, should be better trained. Mitchel Pearlman,
former director of the Connecticut FOI Commission, agreed. “We should
reinvent ourselves on a much more universal level. Ever since mankind has
invented bureaucracy, bureaucracy has become self-serving and controlling.”
Some respondents noted that journalists need more training, as well, in basic
math and spreadsheets. “I am concerned about the focus on news apps,
where the focus is not on accuracy but on the ‘cool,’ ” said Jennifer LaFleur,
senior data editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting. “We need to
focus on accuracy, especially with all the talk of fake news. A lot of times in
the rush to get data up, there’s a lot less cleaning.” Tim Franklin, director
of The Poynter Institute, has worked with the Florida First Amendment
Foundation to develop online FOI training for officials and citizens. Further
collaborations with journalism organizations could help spread the
knowledge and provide value to groups’ members. “There is great training
out there,” he said.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Technology
In this study’s “problem” section, government technology was ranked as very
or extremely problematic by a third of respondents, and 80 percent believed
it is at least somewhat of a problem. Nearly all of the proposed solutions, from
tracking legislation to training and public awareness, face greater chances of
success with the right technology, and almost sure to derail without it.

23 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Technology powers the most popular tools, with study respondents
identifying digital-age newcomer MuckRock as the most useful online/digital
tool for requesters, followed by well-designed websites for downloadable
data, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its FOIA Wiki and
iFOIA.org as well as its online guides and letter generators. In addition, the
overall user-friendly design, podcasts and letter generator were noticed on
the Student Press Law Center site.
Data can be public but presented in such byzantine ways that it is not really
accessible. “If you give me money, I think I can find ways to open data,” said
Waldo Jaquith, who directed the three-year project U.S. Open Data and is
now with 18F.
Other ideas included:
•	

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE that would scour the web for government
data and records, code them, identify which records are most useful for
specific requesters, and alert users to the information. This idea was
inspired by Banjo, which employs artificial intelligence to search social
media sites for photos and video, identifies potentially newsworthy events
as they emerge, and then notifies clients. Socrata founder Kevin Merritt
said he would like to develop alerts for journalists when data are posted
online that they are interested in, as well as integrate government data
sets in other online services that consumers already use, such as Zillow
for homebuyers.

•	

ONLINE DATABASES of request letters, responses and appeals that are
keyword searchable. MuckRock has been developing an online repository
of requests, records and appeal letters. Alaveteli, developed in the United
Kingdom and similar to MuckRock, is developing a professional version
for journalists and frequent requesters that will allow requests to remain
private until stories are published and provide access to expert advice
and training materials. Both nonprofits allow people to use the software
for their own communities.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Other ideas include technology upgrade grants for freedom of information
nonprofits, many of which have fallen far behind media organizations in
design thinking, new product development, responsive design, and use of
social and mobile media (including bots). Local-level partnerships could do
much more to automate public information distribution, as the Columbia
Tribune did in Missouri with its neighborhood database, or make public data
easy to use, as the Texas Tribune did. Such local projects, modeled after the
national successes at ProPublica, are best when accomplished with a mix of
access, storytelling and delivery skills.
Other ideas further suggest that current technology still is not being used
to its potential. They include apps or sites that would: allow government
employees to post suggestions anonymously for what requesters should
ask for; allow requesters to rate and post comments regarding the quality of
the custodians and agencies; alerts whenever any legislative body proposes

24 / 52

restricting access; tech guides featuring better redaction tools (for agencies)
as well as low-cost scanning and searching software such as Document
Cloud; and fostering virtual groups of citizens to collaborate on open
government issues.
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Proactive disclosure
SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.904

4.9% (9)

23.9% (44)

33.2% (61)

38.0% (70)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

MORE FUNDING
FOR AGENCIES

184

3.04

MORE RESOURCES FOR FOIA OFFICES
The utopian access idea is to find a community willing to fully automate its
records, so that all public information is available the moment it enters
government computers and no one has to ask for anything. Given the support
that access professionals report that they get within the government, utopia
seems a long way off.
As more online tools, such as MuckRock, make it easier for people to request
records, it seems likely agencies (especially those that have not digitized
operations) will have even greater difficulty responding, said Tamara ManikPerlman, chief executive officer of NextRequest. “People impute ill will on the
state-local level, but most of the time people are just overburdened and just don’t
have time to do what they need to do,” she said. Also, the need for more training
for record custodians was highly rated by those who filled out the survey.
“A lot of FOIA officers are terrific,” said Tony Corbo, who litigates access cases
for Food & Water Watch. “They are overburdened…. But it varies. Every time a
new FOIA officer comes in, there’s a change. It’s a tough job. Some have been
pains, but the thing is, FOIA officers tend to be very conscientious and try to do a
good job.” Despite these observations, access experts fear the new presidential
administration will provide fewer dollars, not more, for freedom of information.
HELP GOVERNMENT POST DATA ONLINE

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Waldo Jaquith’s three-year project, U.S. Open Data, sought to get
government information online. But he found the public accountability
argument didn’t get far with agencies. “That’s a really poisonous thing to tell
someone in government,” Jaquith said. “We changed the narrative to help
them figure out how posting data online would help them save time and make
it easier to share with other agencies. We showed them they could post links
online to frequently requested data and then not have to respond to as many
FOIA requests. They love that.”

25 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

The FOI community should work more closely with data custodians to
emphasize the productivity benefits of systems that automatically post records
online as they are created. Former journalist Tom Johnson, who founded
It’s the People’s Data in New Mexico, works hand-in-hand with Santa Fe, Los
Alamos and other cities to help them post data proactively. Johnson suggests,
for example, that teams could go into cities and inventory data held across
different departments, figure out what data are useful to multiple departments,
and create a system for streamlined collection, use and posting. “The thing
about the whole open data process,” Johnson said, “is the first benefit isn’t to
citizens or journalists, but to people who work in government.”
POST DATA ONLINE THAT GOVERNMENT WILL NOT
Acquire records and data from the government and provide it online for
everyone to use, much like MuckRock, The National Security Archive,
Harvard Free Law Database, Russ Kick’s Memory Hole 2, the OpenGov
Foundation, governmentattic.org, ProPublica and many others. Carl
Malamud posts government documents, including patents and government
regulations, to his website, Public.Resource.org, much to the angst of agency
vendors that want to sell public information at a profit. “A lot of databases are
hidden from the public,” Malamud said. “We need more advocacy in liberating
scientific journal articles, the law and databases.”

Build collaboration
SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

0.895

5.6% (10)

29.6% (53)

35.8% (64)

29.1% (52)

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

COORDINATION
OF FOI GROUPS

179

2.88

GROW COLLABORATION AND COORDINATION

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

“We definitely need to bring groups together,” said Dan Bevarly, executive
director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “We all have
the same target, and it’s an identified target. We need to work smarter,
not harder, at moving this needle.” Funders might encourage greater
collaboration among FOI groups by suggesting that organizations that are
duplicating efforts apply for grants together; that may be especially effective
when seeking money from new FOI funders. In-person gatherings of group
executive directors could help organizations develop stronger relationships
and build trust. “It really is all about relationships,” said Irving Washington,
executive director of the Online News Association. “There has to be ways to
facilitate relationships naturally, rather than forcing them.”

26 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

The groups should identify their “lanes,” said David Boardman, chair of the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press board and president of the
American Society of News Editors Foundation. “Have everyone identify their
core competencies; otherwise everyone is treading on the same turf,” he
said. Groups should build on their competencies and let others focus on their
core competencies, accounting for countervailing forces: boards committed
solely to their own organizations, rotating volunteer presidents, competition
for dollars, and the need to show members and funders they are getting
value for their dollars.
“When we are more unified as a profession, we are more powerful,” said Doug
Haddix, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. “There is
strength in collaboration.” Collaboration has improved, many noted. On Jan.
12, 2017, for example, about 50 representatives of journalism and civil society
organizations gathered in Washington, D.C., for a press freedom summit to
talk about how to better coordinate, including in FOI.35
Nonprofit groups within journalism can be even more effective when they
partner with groups outside journalism. When the League of Women Voters
creates voter guides and participates in Sunshine Week or when journalism
groups partner with the American Library Association or the many others
organized by OpenTheGovernment.Org, their voices are more clearly
heard. Natural open government allies include good-government groups,
universities, social justice groups, historical groups, unions, librarians,
attorneys, tech companies, hackers and data brokers. “I think government
transparency and accountability transcends any philosophical boundaries,”
said Jon Riches, director of national litigation for the Goldwater Institute, a
conservative-libertarian think tank in Arizona.
LOOK AT FUNDRAISING AS A PROFESSIONAL FUNDRAISER WOULD
Many respondents said that now is a good time to bolster support for
advocacy and assistance to journalists and citizens seeking government
information. Nonprofit journalism-related organizations generally have
looked to a small number of foundations for support. Yet the Media Impact
Funders database lists $7.7 billion in media grants going back about a
decade, given (at the time of this writing) by some 12,000 philanthropies;
the database puts “open government” grants at $225 million from about
150 funders. Focusing on a few is not the strategy a professional fundraiser
would use.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Outside of foundations, potential new funding sources noted by respondents
were attorneys, technology companies, universities, Hollywood celebrities,
libertarian think tanks and the people themselves. (Seven of every 10
philanthropic dollars are given by individuals; foundations in 2016 gave just
16 percent.)
Michael Tolhurst of the Charles Koch Institute, for example, said his
organization would consider funding freedom of information since it
fits within the group’s interests in individual freedoms and government

27 / 52

accountability. Innovators within the tech industry said many of them care
about the issues, particularly in developing a more engaged citizenry. Google
and Facebook have developed journalism outreach projects in recent
years. One respondent suggested journalists apply for National Science
Foundation or National Archives grants to develop data analytic tools.
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

The presidential transition is sure to heighten interest in open government
among traditional funders as well as new ones. Already there are calls for
First Amendment funding coalitions. A window is open for donors to commit
(or recommit) to the idea, as Bill Church, president of Associated Press
Media Editors, put it, “that the public’s right to know is tantamount to the
strength of our democracy.”
REBOOT THE NATIONAL FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COALITION36
While dozens of organizations work at the federal level on FOIA, few
nationwide coordinating bodies assist citizens and community journalists
at the state level. The NFOIC was a volunteer group founded to help state
coalitions for open government. With Knight Foundation support, it expanded
the number of state coalitions to reach almost all 50 states and embedded a
headquarters at the University of Missouri.
Many respondents said NFOIC should be reinvigorated with a new board,
new mission and new partners. State coalitions also need help finding
ongoing support. Additional staff at NFOIC could assist coalitions in raising
their own money.

Big ideas from interviewees
CREATE A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO KNOW

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

As difficult as it may sound, advocates could push for a constitutional
amendment to secure the public’s right to know, as it is enshrined in some
state constitutions and in some nations’ constitutions, including Liberia.37
This was called for by Harold Cross in his 1953 book “The People’s Right
to Know,”38 which eventually led to passage of U.S. FOIA. In the 64 years
since, a constitutional amendment has yet to happen. “Just like copyright is
in the Constitution, I think FOI should be in there,” said media law scholar
Daxton “Chip” Stewart, from Texas Christian University. “I know it’s pie in
the sky and it would take political will, but that would be my perfect world.”
Further, make all three branches of government subject to FOIA instead of
just the executive branch, as they are in some other countries, such as South
Korea. Also, recognize in the United States the right to access government
information as a fundamental human right—as essential as the right to
education, marriage, property ownership, bed and food, and life without
torture or slavery—as outlined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration
of Human Rights since 1948.39
28 / 52

BECOME A PLAYER IN THE NEWS CREDIBILITY MOVEMENT

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Fact-checking and renewing credibility in news have emerged as key
challenges since the 2016 presidential election, and government records
are central to those issues. Public records, like news, can be faked, and
document verification tools are critical. At the same time, government
records can lend credibility to news as primary sources. Journalists
and citizens who acquire public records and post them online provide
information that can be verified. FOI organizations and advocates should
work with such efforts as the Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program,
which seeks to bolster trust in the news through building healthy ecosystems
of community knowledge organizations. FOI should be integrated into and be
seen as part of those ecosystems.
ADJUST LANGUAGE AND PERCEPTIONS
Mark Weiler, an FOI scholar and librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University in
Ontario, Canada, proposes that requesters and government change the
way they think and talk about FOIA. For example, he suggests people put in
an “order” for records, rather than a request, as in putting in an order for
copies. He also suggests that society conceive agencies as “publishers” of
information, and therefore, when a government agency prohibits publication
of information by refusing to copy a record for a citizen, then it is essentially
censoring. “We need to minimize government censorship of their own copy
centers,” he said. In this approach, those who place orders are no longer
seen as antagonists. “What is antagonistic is when the government wants to
censor it.” Ultimately, he said, when the public seeks its own records, state
of mind and framing changes could lead to a more fluid process with more
informed, confident users of government information.
TEST COMMUNITY INFORMATION TAXING DISTRICTS
Just as students at many universities have voted to tax themselves to support
campus media, pilot a special community information taxing district
that would financially support efforts to provide community information,
including public media, libraries, journalism and open government coalitions.
The coordinated information entities, perhaps even located in a single
community information hub, would be beholden to the public, not elected
officials or advertisers.
EXPLORE GOVERNMENT TAX BREAKS

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Government subsidies have been provided for centuries to ensure that citizens
have information, including through lower postal rates for newspapers
and waived copy fees under FOIA for journalists. Provide tax breaks for
organizations that supply information for the public good, such as for beats
covering city hall. “They would just have to think it through to maintain
independence,” said Penny Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital
Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
29 / 52

INFUSE FOI IN CULTURE

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Solutions

Seek ways to integrate FOI in culture, whether through movies, books, video
games, apps or viral videos. For example, in 2016 a crowdfunding effort led
to the publication of a comic book out of Finland about Anders Chydenius,
advocate for the world’s first freedom of information act.40 In 1992, an
Australian comic book, “The Southern Squadron,” featured a “Freedom of
Information Act” series where the nation’s FOIA law was used by journalists
to find information about the superheroes. David de Vries, the comic book’s
co-creator, said he used FOIA as a tool to introduce the backgrounds of the
characters, and even though portrayal of the law’s mechanics was not exact
(the journalists stole the records rather than submitting a request, and then
they were killed as a way to suppress the material), the mere introduction of
the law to the public was valuable. “Any form of narrative fiction storytelling
is not to educate like a documentary, or even preach,” de Vries said. “When
you tuck your kid in bed you don’t give your kid a lecture, you give him a story.
And that is what comics can do. It opens people up to the concept. … That is
what you need more than anything else—to be aware it exists.” In the United
States, television, video, movies and digital gaming could be sources of FOI
education.
Two panels focusing on journalists reveling in the power of FOIA in getting
information, from “Southern Squadron: Freedom of Information Act,” by
David de Vries and Glenn Lumsden, 1992, issue 1:

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

30 / 52

CONCLUSION
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Conclusion

This study finds an earnest group, which includes government officials in the
access community, focused on what it sees as an opportunity to preserve
and even expand freedom of information in cities, states and the nation.
If the open government community was hoping for something to rally around,
this report signals its arrival. Nearly 9 of 10 experts who contributed to
this study—be they journalists, librarians, nonprofit groups or government
employees—fear the new administration will worsen freedom of information
and government transparency.
“It’s obvious this administration is going to be even less forthcoming than the
last one, which is saying something,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of
the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “Transparency
will become more of a battleground.”
For news people, the issue at stake is what Nieman Reports calls “the
most powerful and fundamental tool of American journalism.” Freedom of
information is, in fact, the foundation upon which every profession is built.
Without open government, there are no journalists, librarians, nonprofits or
government employees, not as we know them today—just a mass of people,
as one put it, “wandering in the dark.”
A freedom of information renaissance. It sounds somehow right, at this
moment in history, when we are focusing on the fundamental elements
of the American democracy. New projects and partnerships, new money,
technologies and momentum toward once again being a global leader in
open government: Is this possible? This is a community that can react well to
crisis. Cold War secrecy led to federal FOIA. Watergate aided passage of new
state public record laws. The 9/11 attacks and Iraq War secrecy preceded the
expansion of state FOI coalitions, Sunshine Week and significant endowment
campaigns for access organizations.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

Part of what has brought us to today, a significant number of this study’s
participants agree, is a steady decline in transparency and an increase
in public records request denials over the past four years. Respondents
outlined problems in delays, redactions, denials and technological barriers.
Yet the Obama years were a study in action and reaction. Not all the news
was bad. “There is an awful lot of information disclosed under FOIA,” said
Harry Hammitt, publisher of Access Reports. “We could be much worse off.”

31 / 52

To avoid that fate, the FOI community watches what many others do not—the
flow of the public facts. Of its many ideas, the author believes a consensus
has formed around four priorities:

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Conclusion

4.	 Band together. While journalism groups have started to work together,
at times with civil society groups, they need to further break down walls,
setting aside competitive self-interests, suspicion, ego and structural
impediments. To raise more money, to strengthen the groups, they must
divide the job at hand and work together.
5.	 Take the fight to the states. A state litigation network with one or more
hubs could connect requesters with lawyers and university law clinics,
coordinate a campaign to get attorney fee provisions added to state laws,
coordinate researchers to answer key FOI questions, and serve as a
quick-response center for FOI emergencies nationwide.
6.	 Bolster education and advocacy. A Sunshine Coalition could work to
create an effective ad campaign for the public, including expanding
Sunshine Week to a year-round effort, integrate FOI into schools,
enhance training for journalists and record custodians, and empower a
new cadre of FOI-friendly politicians.
7.	 Develop digital technology. Technology companies could work with
MuckRock, Reporters Committee and others to bring FOI organizations
into the digital age and to create new tools to organize supporters,
raise money, share information and in other ways that will enhance
government transparency, as well as aid government agencies in
disseminating data online proactively.
If Thomas Jefferson was right, the fight to free public information must
happen regardless of which parties are governing, and it is a fight that is
never fully won. Still, without teamwork, training, technology and support of
the people—and tenacity—progress can be elusive. So the final word goes
to David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who launched
DCReport.org to watchdog the new administration. “The republic has
survived a lot of things,” he said. “We survived a Civil War. The Constitution is
durable. The worst thing to do is be fearful. Don’t lose heart.”

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

32 / 52

METHODOLOGY
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Methodology

This study combined in-person and phone interviews with an online survey of
journalists, advocates, researchers, attorneys and other experts who have
an interest in freedom of information.

Survey
An online survey was conducted Dec. 13 through 31, 2016. A link to the survey
was distributed via email, newsletter and social media channels through
Investigative Reporters and Editors, National Freedom of Information
Coalition members, American Society of News Editors, Media Law Resource
Center, FOI-L listserv through Syracuse University, Society of Professional
Journalists, OpenTheGovernment.org, Online News Association, Investigative
Nonprofit News, and state press associations.
A total of 228 people, averaging 13 minutes per participant, completed
the survey, administered through Qualtrics software (see the Appendix
for survey questions and results). Responses were anonymous unless
participants wished to provide their names and email addresses at the end to
be possibly contacted for elaboration (117, or about half, did so).

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

The sample is not scientific or representative of the general population or
journalists as a whole, but instead was intended to gather impressions and
suggestions from those most involved with and passionate about access to
government information. Of those who reported their field, 61 percent were
journalists primarily from a mixture of news organizations large and small, 12
percent were from FOI advocacy organizations, 8 percent from government,
and the rest from a variety of fields, including academia, unions and law
firms. Of the respondents, 52 reported they were members of Investigative
Reporters and Editors, 35 members of the Society of Professional
Journalists, 14 members of state open government coalitions, 14 from public
record custodian organizations, 10 members of the bar, and others reported
membership in a variety of other organizations. Responses were analyzed in
Microsoft Excel and SPSS (see the Appendix for a summary). Respondents
were allowed to skip questions that they did not know or want to answer.
Answers to open-ended questions were grouped into clusters of similar
answers.

33 / 52

Interviews

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Methodology

In addition to the online survey, 108 freedom of information experts were
interviewed via phone or in person from Oct. 5, 2016, through Jan. 27, 2017.
Participants were selected from a cross section of organizations and
activities within journalism, tech companies, public service, law, academia,
government and civil society groups. About 50 people contacted for the
study did not respond or could not arrange for a time to be interviewed. The
semistructured interviews averaged 43 minutes. Most (65 percent) of the
respondents wished to be on the record, and the rest requested that all or
parts of their responses be confidential. Interview transcripts were gleaned
for commonalities as well as unique ideas and perceptions, with the intent of
providing a summary of broadly accepted views as well as contrary opinions
and new insights. All interviews, surveying, analyses and writing were
performed by the researcher, David Cuillier.

The research team
DAVID CUILLIER, Ph.D., is director and associate professor at the
University of Arizona School of Journalism. He was a newspaper reporter
and editor before earning his doctorate in communication at Washington
State University in 2006. He was president of the Society of Professional
Journalists in 2013-14, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee
for five years, is a member of the National Freedom of Information Coalition
board, and has contributed FOI columns to the IRE Journal since 2013. He
has testified before Congress regarding FOIA in 2010, 2014 and 2016, has
published numerous studies regarding freedom of information and, with
Charles N. Davis, is co-author of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring
Public Records” and co-editor of “Transparency 2.0: Digital Data and Privacy
in a Wired World.” Email him at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.
ERIC NEWTON, innovation chief at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism
and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and former journalism
vice president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, served as the
study’s consulting editor.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

34 / 52

APPENDIX
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

Survey Questions and Results
(Results may not total 100 percent due to rounding.)
Thank you in advance for helping us better understand the freedom of
information landscape in the United States and what might be done to
improve it. Your perspective, which will be kept confidential, is critical to
improving government and society. The results will be reported by the
Knight Foundation this spring and emailed to you directly. You can remain
anonymous, if you wish, or provide your name and contact information at the
end. If you have questions or would like to elaborate on your answers, feel
free to contact project director David Cuillier, associate professor at the
University of Arizona School of Journalism, at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.
8.	 StateRequest
When was the last time you requested a LOCAL/STATE record under your
state public records law
1

Past two days

32

2

Past week

42

18.5 %

3

Past month

50

22.0 %

14.1 %

4

Past year

52

22.9 %

5

Past four years

16

7.0 %

6

More than 4 years

13

5.7 %

7

Never

22

9.7 %

227

100 %

9.	 StateTrend
Overall, has access to public records in your state gotten worse or better
in the past four years?
1

Much worse

21

11.8 %

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

2

Somewhat worse

60

33.9 %

3

About the same

73

41.2 %

4

Somewhat better

17

9.6 %

5

Much better

6

3.3 %

177

100 %

35 / 52

10.	StateGrade
Grade the state you live in (or the state you are most familiar with) on how
well agencies, in general, provide records to the public (A, B, C, D, F).

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

1

A

9

4.2 %

2

B

54

25.5 %

3

C

88

41.5 %

4

D

42

19.8 %

5

F

19

9.0 %

212

100 %

11.	State
What was the name of the state that you graded? (open-ended)
12.	StateFuture
What do you think will happen in the next four years regarding access at
the state/local level? It will be…
1

Much worse

33

15.9 %

2

Somewhat worse

84

40.4 %

3

About the same

68

32.7 %

4

Somewhat better

21

10.1 %

5

Much better

2

1.0 %

208

100 %

13.	FedRequest
When was the last time you requested a FEDERAL record under U.S.
FOIA?
1

Past two days

12

5.3 %

2

Past week

17

7.6 %

3

Past month

22

9.8 %

4

Past year

63

28.0 %

5

Past four years

33

14.7 %

6

More than 4 years

24

10.7 %

7

Never

54

24.0 %

225

100 %

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

14.	FedTrend
Overall, has access to public records at the federal level (FOIA) gotten
worse or better in the past four years?
1

Much worse

18

12.2 %

2

Somewhat worse

43

29.1 %

3

About the same

69

46.6 %

4

Somewhat better

15

10.1 %

5

Much better

3

2.0 %

148

100 %
36 / 52

15.	FedFuture
What do you think will happen in the next four years regarding access at
the federal (FOIA) level? It will be…

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

1

Much worse

103

12.2 %

2

Somewhat worse

66

52.6 %

3

About the same

21

33.7 %

4

Somewhat better

4

10.7 %

5

Much better

2

1.0 %

196

100 %

16.	Future
Why do you make that prediction about the future about access to state/
local, or federal or both types of records? (open-ended question)
17.	Trump
In what way do you think the incoming presidential administration will
affect access to public records at the federal level? It will be ...
1

Much worse

116

57.4 %

2

Somewhat worse

58

28.7 %

3

About the same

21

10.4 %

4

Somewhat better

5

2.5 %

5

Much better

2

1.0 %

202

100 %

18.	Denied
Over the past four years, the prevalence of times you’ve been denied
records has ...
1

Increased substantially

23

13.7 %

2

Increased slightly

40

23.8 %

3

Stayed the same

95

56.5 %

4

Decreased slightly

9

5.4 %

5

Decreased substantially

1

0.6 %

168

100 %

19.	Suing
If you work for a news organization, over the past four years, your
company’s willingness to sue for records has ...
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

1

Increased substantially

20

2

Increased slightly

15

14.2 %

3

Stayed the same

51

48.1 %

4

Decreased slightly

8

7.5 %

5

Decreased substantially

12

11.3 %

106

100 %

18.9 %

37 / 52

Access to records
Now let’s talk about specifics … Please rate the following categories in regard
to their impediment to your acquisition of public records.
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

1.	 Not at all problematic
2.	 Somewhat problematic
3.	 Very problematic
4.	 Extremely problematic

ISSUE

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
PROBLEMATIC

SOMEWHAT
PROBLEMATIC

VERY
PROBLEMATIC

EXTREMELY
PROBLEMATIC

(1 –4, higher
is worse)

DELAYS

188

3.09

0.903

5.3% (10)

20.7% (39)

34.0% (64)

39.9% (75)

LACK OF
ENFORCEMENT

185

2.76

1.107

18.4% (34)

20.5% (38)

27.6% (51)

33.5% (62)

OVERUSE OF
EXEMPTIONS

187

2.70

1.026

12.3% (23)

23.0% (43)

30.5% (57)

34.2% (64)

EXCESSIVE
REDACTION

184

2.47

1.071

21.7% (40)

32.1% (59)

23.4% (43)

22.8% (42)

REQUESTS IGNORED

185

2.44

1.047

20.5% (38)

36.2% (67)

21.6% (40)

21.6% (40)

ELECTRONIC/DATA
ISSUES

189

2.26

0.957

22.2% (42)

43.4% (82)

20.6% (39)

13.8% (26)

SEARCH /
REDACTION FEES

184

2.09

1.044

34.8% (64)

36.4% (67)

13.6% (25)

15.2% (28)

COPY FEES

188

1.97

0.997

38.8% (73)

37.8% (71)

11.2% (21)

12.2% (23)

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

38 / 52

OTHER IMPEDIMENTS
Other impediments that need to be addressed? (open-ended)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

OTHER IMPEDIMENTS

COUNT

Arbitrary and inconsistent responses by custodians

7

Culture of secrecy within government, lack of commitment

7

Lack of enforcement or teeth in the law

6

Reverse actions—SLAPP suits and outward hostility

6

Omitting records that are known to exist

5

Using private emails to conduct state business

4

Understaffed FOIA offices

3

Lack of consistency in granting fee waivers and expedited review

3

FERPA and HIPAA

2

Overreliance on AG approval before release, causing delays

2

Agencies requiring greater specific description of records

2

Difficult to figure out what records exist to ask about

2

Politicization of process—denials purely political

2

Outdated technology and processes in agencies

2

Process is confusing and daunting

2

Lack of pro bono assistance and legal aid

2

Using formats (e.g., PDFs) to make records hard to use

1

Lack of time limit on producing records

1

Law enforcement investigations cause long delays

1

Blacklisting of some requesters

1

Access to courts expensive

1

Creation of new records a tactic for denial

1

Private prisons claiming they aren’t subject to FOI laws

1

Requiring a written request for everything

1

Frequent deletion/dumping of records—no retention

1

Need tracker to track records requests through system

1

Increase in charging time for searching/handling requests

1

More records should be put proactively online

1

Jurisdictions that require residency requirements for requests

1

Agencies know newspapers less likely to sue today

1

Some requesters abuse the system

1

Educating officials, particularly new ones

1

Congress exempted from FOIA

1

Bad case law

1

Bias against commercially motivated citizens

1

Officials avoiding written records/calls to circumvent law

1

39 / 52

14.	Improve
If you were all powerful and had unlimited funds, what would you do to
improve access to government information? (open-ended)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

15.	Sunshine
What could be added to national Sunshine Week
(www.sunshineweek.org) to maximize impact?

SUNSHINE WEEK

COUNT

Identify and promote poster child examples of bad cases; shame them

14

Raise awareness of Sunshine Week; promote it more, publicity

11

Focus on stories where records helped average people

9

Too journalism-focused and preaching to the choir; expand outside news

7

Lead an annual records audit on a specific topic each year

5

More public education and community talks

6

Don’t know what Sunshine Week is

3

Make it a yearlong effort

2

Expand to youth/schools education

2

Focus on programs that help government officials learn

2

Figure out if it has any real impact

2

Have news websites highlight FOI-driven stories

2

Promote testimonials of good record custodians

1

Get star power to promote—celebrities

1

More advance notice to participants to get involved

1

Get into lobbying

1

Coordinate meetings/forum/conference for frequent FOI users

1

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

40 / 52

16.	Digital
What are the most useful online/digital tools in aiding people’s ability to
access records? (open-ended)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

USEFUL FOI DIGITAL TOOLS

COUNT

MuckRock

27

Well-designed websites with the ability to search and download bulk data

18

Reporters Committee open government guide

7

Agencies that allow records requests to be filed online

6

Google

6

SPLC and RCFP online letter generators

6

FOIA machine

6

Online request tracking

3

IRE.org

3

Email

3

Release to one, release to all online

2

NFOIC

2

WikiLeaks

1

Utah Interactive for online audio

1

USAspending.gov used to be good

1

TRAC database

1

Open-source software

1

PACER

1

Opensecrets.com

1

New York State Committee on Open Government website

1

The National Security Archive

1

Oakland Public Record Trac portal

1

Reporters Committee new FOIA wiki

1

Reporters Committee iFOIA

1

DocumentCloud

1

Ballotpedia pages on state FOI laws

1

ProPublica

1

SPJ.org

1

NLM DocMorph

1

FTP

1

FOIA.gov

1

PDF scrapers

1

Data.gov

1

CometDocs

1

Tabula

1

41 / 52

17.	Tools
What tools would be helpful that have yet to be created? (open-ended)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

NEEDED DIGITAL TOOLS

COUNT

Tools that help requesters track requests

7

Super search—keyword search all data within an agency

5

Improved redaction tools for text, video, emails

5

Searchable database of FOI requests and responses

4

Tech and tools aren’t the answer

4

Directory of lawyers willing to help fight for records

4

National database linking all government data

3

Standardized portal used by all agencies

3

Online appeal language and case law depending on topic

3

Online database of exemptions and laws for every state

2

Electronic reading rooms with frequently requested records

2

Open-source platform for agencies to manage requests

2

An easier web scraper

2

Yelp-like reviews for how well agencies comply; registry of the good/bad

2

System that allows agencies to better share information/requests

1

Online tool that makes suing at the state level easy

1

MuckRock, but with money

1

More safe mechanisms for leaking information online

1

Lower-cost OCR software

1

Means of measuring agency FOI performance

1

Online database of FOI stories to generate reports for lobbying

1

Easier PDF scrapers

1

Coalition of librarians to crunch data for the public

1

Online research and information about FOI

1

Crowdfunding site for FOI litigation

1

911 emergency response network for bad legislative proposals

1

More Excel tutorials for journalists

1

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

42 / 52

18.	Orgs
What are the most influential FOI organizations at the state / local level
or federal level, or both? (open-ended)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

GROUP

COUNT

State coalitions

46

RCFP

31

SPJ

20

MuckRock

19

ACLU

16

NFOIC

16

Press associations

16

Sunlight Foundation

11

Newspapers

11

IRE

9

Electronic Frontier Foundation

4

OpenTheGovernment.org

4

ProPublica

4

Sunshine in Government Initiative

4

ASNE

3

Common Cause

3

National Security Archive

3

Associated Press

1

Center for Investigative Reporting

1

Center for Public Integrity

1

Congress

1

EPIC

1

FOIA Resource Center

1

Independent media

1

Jason Leopold

1

NAA

1

OGIS

1

POGO

1

Public Citizen

1

RTDNA

1

Student Press Law Center

1

Yale Law Clinic

1

Library associations

1

Center for Responsive Politics

1

Knight

1

Code for America

1

43 / 52

19.	Partners
What other organizations outside of the traditional core FOI circle do
you think might be viable partners/collaborators for future endeavors?
(open-ended)
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

POTENTIAL PARTNERS

COUNT

Universities

9

Social justice groups (e.g., Black Lives Matter)

9

ACLU

8

Historical/archivists/genealogical groups

7

Business/industry

5

League of Women Voters

4

Unions

4

Librarians

4

Attorneys

4

Technology companies

4

Civic tech/engagement groups

3

Libertarians

3

Scientists

2

Hackers

2

Private investigators

2

WikiLeaks

1

Most frequent FOIA requesters

1

Innocence projects

1

Google

1

Religious organizations

1

Medical professionals

1

Real estate companies

1

Omidyar

1

Carter Center

1

Leagues of municipalities

1

Reclaim the Records

1

MLRC

1

Signers onto FOI amicus briefs

1

Political think tanks

1

High school educators

1

Government auditing agencies

1

Environmental groups

1

College newspapers

1

Criminal defense

1

Citizen bloggers

1

Data brokers

1

44 / 52

20.	Finance
What potential organizations or people might be willing to financially
support FOI efforts? (open-ended)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

POTENTIAL FUNDERS

COUNT

Attorneys

6

Tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter)

5

ACLU

5

Universities

4

Knight Foundation

4

Donors and public

3

People afraid of Trump; Democratic groups

3

Omidyar

3

Unions

2

Hollywood/celebrities

2

Soros

2

Businesses passed over for contracts

2

Amazon

1

Warren Buffett

1

Libertarian think tanks

1

Ford Foundation

1

MacArthur Foundation

1

Shuttleworth Foundation

1

Poynter

1

Prioritizing solutions
Please rate the following importance of the following activities
toward improving FOI.
1.	 Not important at all
2.	 Somewhat important
3.	 Very important
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

4.	 Extremely important

45 / 52

SOLUTION

N

MEAN

SD

NOT AT ALL
IMPORTANT

SOMEWHAT
IMPORTANT

VERY
IMPORTANT

EXTREMELY
IMPORTANT

(1 –4)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

REQUIRING ATTORNEY
FEE PROVISIONS

178

3.31

0.897

4.5% (8)

15.7% (28)

23.6% (42)

56.2% (100)

CUSTODIAN TRAINING

183

3.30

0.827

3.3% (6)

13.7% (25)

32.8% (60)

50.3% (92)

ADDING FINES /
PUNISHMENT TO LAWS

180

3.23

0.962

7.2% (13)

15.6% (28)

24.4% (44)

52.8% (95)

ADVOCACY TO INCREASE
FOI SUPPORT

182

3.08

0.889

5.5% (10)

19.2% (35)

37.4% (68)

37.9% (69)

ALTERNATIVES TO
RESOLVING DISPUTES

180

3.06

0.857

3.9% (7)

22.2% (40)

38.3% (69)

35.6% (64)

MORE FUNDING FOR AGENCIES

184

3.04

0.904

4.9% (9)

23.9% (44)

33.2% (61)

38.0% (70)

TRACKING OF PROPOSED
LEGISLATION

182

3.02

0.857

2.7% (5)

27.5% (50)

35.2% (64)

34.6% (63)

LITIGATORS TO SUE ON BEHALF

183

3.00

0.839

2.7% (5)

26.8% (49)

38.3% (70)

32.2% (59)

MORE FUNDING FOR FOI
PROJECTS

178

2.97

0.843

3.4% (6)

27.0% (48)

39.3% (70)

30.3% (54)

FUNDS FOR SUING

183

2.93

0.887

4.4% (8)

29.5% (54)

34.4% (63)

31.7% (58)

COORDINATION OF FOI GROUPS

179

2.88

0.895

5.6% (10)

29.6% (53)

35.8% (64)

29.1% (52)

PUBLIC EDUCATION AND
TRAINING

184

2.86

0.882

5.4% (10)

30.4% (56)

37.0% (68)

27.2% (50)

FOI EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS

183

2.83

0.977

9.8% (18)

27.9% (51)

31.7% (58)

30.6% (56)

REQUESTER TRAINING

183

2.78

0.868

5.5% (10)

34.4% (63)

36.6% (67)

23.5% (43)

LEGAL HOTLINES

182

2.77

0.868

5.5% (10)

35.2% (64)

36.3% (66)

23.1% (42)

LOBBYING AND CAMPAIGNING

178

2.74

1.043

14.6% (26)

27.0% (48)

28.7% (51)

29.8% (53)

DATABASE OF STATE FOI LAWS

183

2.69

0.969

12.0% (22)

30.6% (56)

33.3% (61)

24.0% (44)

LEGAL AID TO SUE PRO SE

181

2.65

0.916

9.4% (17)

37.0% (67)

32.6% (59)

21.0% (38)

FOI RESEARCH

179

2.62

0.881

7.8% (14)

41.3% (74)

31.8% (57)

19.0% (34)

CONTINUING SUNSHINE WEEK

177

2.59

0.95

12.4% (22)

36.2% (64)

31.1% (55)

20.3% (36)

RATING OF STATE FOI LAWS

183

2.37

0.969

21.3% (39)

33.9% (62)

31.1% (57)

13.7% (25)

46 / 52

OTHER SOLUTIONS
(Insert own idea)

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

OTHER SOLUTIONS

COUNT

Post records proactively and automatically online, easily searchable

46

Ombudsman/agency with ability to force disclosure

12

Revamp government database systems—no silos

9

Make noncompliance a criminal offense

8

Reduce exemptions

6

Teach more skills, particularly data, to custodians

5

Win the hearts and minds of custodians

4

More people to search government data and publish leads

3

Penalties of $100 per day per record for violation

2

Expand MuckRock-type services online

2

Develop K-12 literacy curriculum

2

Make Congress/legislatures subject to FOI laws

1

Start campaign to make FOI a constitutional right

1

Require government to use easily found commercial software

1

Eliminate copy fees

1

Better video redaction technology

1

Every agency should have public terminal with printer

1

Make PACER free

1

Assistance for independent media to acquire/sue

1

Create complaint system for bad agencies that triggers review

1

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

47 / 52

Your information
Now, a little information about you…

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Appendix

The following information will be kept confidential and used only for analysis
No answers from this survey will be tied to you in any way.
22.	Org
Organization you work for (open-ended)
23.	Title
Job title (open-ended)
24.	Field
What type of field do you work in?
1.	
2.	
3.	
4.	

Journalism
FOI advocacy organization
Government
Other (please provide)

25.	Belong
What professional organizations do you belong to? (open-ended)
26.	Email
Email (optional, if you are willing to be contacted by the researcher for
further elaboration): (open-ended)
27.	Name
Name (optional, if you are willing to be contacted by the researcher for
further elaboration): (open ended)

Thanks again for taking time to provide your insights. It matters!

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

48 / 52

ENDNOTES
FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Endnotes

1	

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
— Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Paris, May 27, 1788.

knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

2	

Many of the results of this study were consistent with previous research, including the biennial
survey of FOI experts and journalists by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Media
Law Resource Center, March 2016, http://www.nfoic.org/2015-biennial-open-government-surveyresults-troubling.

3	

Dozens of FOI audits have been conducted since 1992, demonstrating widespread noncompliance
with public record laws by state and local agencies. See a list provided by the National Freedom of
Information Coalition at http://www.nfoic.org/foi-audits.

4	

From the foreword of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Statement of Strategy, December
2016, http://www.knightfoundation.org/statement-of-strategy. Also, see Vincent Blasi, “The
Checking Value in First Amendment Theory,” Law & Social Inquiry 2, July 1977: 521-649; and Alexander
Meiklejohn, “Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government” (New York: Harper, 1948).

5	

See, for example, the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, http://library.amlegal.com/nxt/gateway.dll/
California/administrative/chapter67thesanfranciscosunshineordinanc?f=templates$fn=default.
htm$3.0$vid=amlegal:sanfrancisco_ca$anc=JD_Chapter67, which states, “The right of the
people to know what their government and those acting on behalf of their government are doing
is fundamental to democracy, and with very few exceptions, that right supersedes any other policy
interest government officials may use to prevent public access to information.” Also, many state public
record laws, pushed by Common Cause in the early 1970s, include this preamble: “The people of this
state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority,
do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is
not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control
over the instruments that they have created.” (Washington state: http://app.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.
aspx?cite=42.56.030.)

6	

A meta-analysis of FOI research over the past 25 years indicates that government transparency
increases civic participation, improves financial management and reduces corruption (Maria
Cucciniello, Gregory A. Porumbescu and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen, “25 Years of Transparency
Research: Evidence and Future Directions,” Public Administration Review (77)1, 2017: 131-134
(found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/puar.2017.77.issue-1/issuetoc). See, for example,
open publication of food safety inspections decreases consumer complaints (Barbara A. Almanza,
Joseph Ismail, and Juline E. Mills, “The Impact of Publishing Foodservice Inspection Scores,” Journal of
Foodservice Business Research 5, 2002: 45-62); requiring disclosure of drinking water contaminants
reduces health violations in Massachusetts (Lori S. Bennear and Sheila M. Olmstead, “The Impacts of
the ‘Right to Know’: Information Disclosure and the Violation of Drinking Water Standards,” Journal of
Environmental Economics and Management 56(2), 2008: 117-130).

7	

See, for example, the “FOIA Files” database of more than 700 stories based on the Freedom of
Information Act, compiled by the Sunshine in Government Initiative (now called News Media for Open
Government, http://foropengov.org/wordpress/), at http://sunshineingovernment.org/wordpress/
the-foia-files/. Also, a 2001 study by the Society of Professional Journalists of 4,000 news articles
indicated that 19 percent included information from public records; see “Open Doors Survey,” http://
www.spj.org/opendoors5.asp.

8	

For example, the National Security Archives found that even though only 40 percent of federal agencies
comply with E-FOIA, the FBI, departments of Energy and State, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission did
a good job posting records online (see http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB505/). Also, the
Center for Effective Government found in 2015 that 10 of 15 federal agencies received failing grades in
FOIA but that eight agencies had improved their performance from previous years (see http://www.
foreffectivegov.org/access-to-information-scorecard-2015).

49 / 52

9	

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 codified into law the presumption that government records are
public unless there is a reason to make them secret. It also called for a single online request portal,
limited to 25 years the time records could be secret under the deliberative discussions Exemption 5,
strengthened the Office of Government Information Services ombuds and improved reporting of FOIA
performance by agencies.

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Endnotes

10	 Studies show that the Obama administration set a record in the rate requesters were denied
information or told that it doesn’t exist—77 percent of the time. See Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum, “When
It Comes to Providing Government Records the Public Asks to See, the Obama Administration Has a
Hard Time Finding Them,” The Associated Press, March 18, 2016. Also, see Ben Wasike, “FoIA in the
Age of ‘Open.Gov’” to Government Information Quarterly 33(3), July 2016: 417-426 (http://www.
sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0740624X16300491); Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis, “FOIA
Requests Being Denied More Due to Security Reasons Than Any Time Since Obama Took Office,” The
Associated Press. March 11, 2013; and Martin E. Halstuk, Benjamin W. Cramer and Michael D. Todd,
“Tipping the Scales: How the U.S. Supreme Court Eviscerated Freedom of Information in Favor of
Privacy,” in “Transparency 2.0: Digital Data and Privacy in a Wired World,” eds. Charles N. Davis and
David Cuillier (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2014).
11	

See Carolyn Carlson, David Cuillier and Lindsey Tulkoff, “Mediated Access: Journalists’ Perceptions
of Federal Public Information Officer Media Control,” March 12, 2012, http://spj.org/pdf/reporterssurvey-on-federal-PAOs.pdf; “Pressed for Time: U.S. Journalists’ Use of Public Records During
Economic Crisis,” presented to the Global Conference on Transparency Research, Newark, N.J., May
2011; Anne Diffenderffer and Karen Retzer, “Reporters’ Rights and Access Survey,” Chicago Headline
Club, April 2011, found that 41 percent of Chicago journalists said their experience with FOIA is worse
than with state/local records, 37 percent said it is the same, and 22 percent said better.

12	 Surveyed community journalists reported increased denials and more difficulty in getting public
records, according to David Cuillier, “Pressed for Time: U.S. Journalists’ Use of Public Records During
Economic Crisis,” presented to the Global Conference on Transparency Research, Newark, N.J., May
2011.
13	 “More than 50 Journalism Groups Again Urge President Obama to Stop Excessive Controls on
Public Information,” Society of Professional Journalists, Aug. 11, 2015, http://www.spj.org/news.
asp?REF=1368.

14	 “Journalists Ask White House for Commitment to Openness,” Society of Professional Journalists,
Dec. 15, 2015, http://www.spj.org/news.asp?REF=1402.
15	 See Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy, “Global Right to Information Rating,”
www.rti-rating.org/country-data. Also, for a comparison showing how countries should not use the
U.S. as a model for FOIA, see Stephen Lamble, “FoI as a United States’ Foreign Policy Tool: A Carrot and
Stick Approach,” Freedom of Information Review 105, June 2003: 38-43.
16	 See a comparison of access at the state and federal levels before FOIA was passed and today, in David
Cuillier, “The People’s Right to Know: Comparing Harold L. Cross’ Pre-FOIA World to Post-FOIA Today,”
Communication Law & Policy 21(4), 2016: 433-463.

17	 Lindita Camaj, “Governments’ Uses and Misuses of Freedom of Information Laws in Emerging
European Democracies: FOI Laws’ Impact on News Agenda-Building in Albania, Kosovo, and
Montenegro,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 93(4), 2016: 923-945.

18	 See Margaret Kwoka, “FOIA, Inc.,” Duke Law Journal 65, 2016: 1361-1437.
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

19	 James T. Hamilton, “Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism” (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016). Research also indicates that journalists were beginning
to pursue public records and cover public meetings less even before the recession. See Stephen
Lacy, Charles St. Cyr and Miron Varouhakis, “Newspaper Reporters’ Perception of City Government
Coverage in 1997, 2007,” Newspaper Research Journal 29(4), 2008: 66-73; and John C. Besley and M.
Chris Roberts, “Cuts in Newspaper Staffs Change Meeting Coverage,” Newspaper Research Journal
31(3), 2010: 22-35.

50 / 52

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Endnotes

20	 See “News Organizations’ Ability to Champion First Amendment Rights Is Slipping, Survey of Leading
Editors finds,” American Society of News Editors, http://www.knightfoundation.org/press/releases/
news-organizations-ability-champion-first-amendmen. Also see David Cuillier, “Pressed for Time,”
2011 (finding that half of U.S. journalists have never submitted a federal FOIA request, a quarter said
they don’t have time, a third that they don’t know how, and a third perceive that their companies are
less likely to sue for records than in past two years); National Freedom of Information Coalition, “New
Knight Foundation Grant Allows State Groups to Take Up Freedom of Information Lawsuits,” January
2010, https://journalism.missouri.edu/2010/01/knight-foundation-helps-state-groups-take-upfreedom-of-information-lawsuits/; and Media Law Research Center-National Freedom of Information
Coalition Open Government Survey, 2016, http://www.nfoic.org/2015-biennial-open-governmentsurvey-results-troubling.
21	

See “Glass Half Full” survey released March 14, 2011, by the National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.
gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB338/.

22	 See David Cuillier, “The Public’s Concern for Privacy Invasion and Its Relationship to Support for Press
Access to Government Records,” Newspaper Research Journal 25(4), 2004: 95-103.
23	 A Gallup poll in September 2016 showed that trust in the media dropped to 32 percent, down from
40 percent the previous year and from 72 percent in 1976. Republicans’ trust in the media is even
lower—at 14 percent—down from 32 percent a year ago. See http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/
americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx.
24	 For example, national Sunshine Week (www.sunshineweek.org) and 1 for All (https://1forallnet.
wordpress.com/) have not developed sustainable, diverse revenue streams.
25	 Factors, for example, related to support for FOI include civic engagement (David Cuillier, “Access
Attitudes: A Social Learning Approach to Examining Community Engagement and Support for Press
Access to Government Records,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 85(3), 2008: 549576); internet use (David Cuillier and Suzanne J. Piotrowski, “Internet Information Seeking and Its
Relation to Support for Access to Government Records,” Government Information Quarterly 26(3),
2009: 441-449); and skepticism (David Cuillier and Bruce Pinkleton, “Suspicion and Secrecy: Political
Attitudes and Their Relationship to Support for Freedom of Information,” Communication Law and
Policy 16(3), 2011: 227-254); and can be even affected by thoughts of death (David Cuillier, Blythe Duell
and Jeffrey Joireman, “FOI Friction: The Thought of Death, National Security Values, and Polarization of
Attitudes Toward Freedom of Information,” Open Government 5(1), 2009).

26	 See, for example, http://www.knightfoundation.org/future-first-amendment-survey and http://
www.knightfoundation.org/articles/news-high-schools-digital-media-plus-teaching-equalssupport-freedom.

27	 See David Cuillier, “Pressed for Time,” 2011. Also see “News Organizations’ Ability to Champion First
Amendment Rights Is Slipping, Survey of Leading Editors Finds,” by the American Society of News
Editors, http://www.knightfoundation.org/press/releases/news-organizations-ability-championfirst-amendmen.
28	 New Voices USA website at http://newvoicesus.com/

29	 As a result, several major judgments in Washington state have caused agencies, particularly smaller
ones, to take the law seriously. In 2007 the state Department of Corrections had to pay $341,000 in
attorney fees and $200,000 in penalties, and in 2016 the town of Mesa, population 500, had to pay
$353,000, although the judge lowered the penalties to $175,000 so the town would not go bankrupt.
knightfoundation.org  |  @knightfdn

30	 A. Jay Wagner, “A Most Essential Principle: Use and Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act,
1975-2014” (dissertation, 2016, Indiana University).
31	 See the list of media litigants reported by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access
Clearinghouse at http://foiaproject.org/plaintiff-media-list/.
32	 For links to FOI-related videos posted around the world, see http://www.freedominfo.org/resources/
foi-videos/.
51 / 52

33	 See David Cuillier, “Access Attitudes: A Social Learning Approach to Examining Community
Engagement and Support for Press Access to Government Records,” Journalism and Mass
Communication Quarterly, 85(3), 2008: 549-576.

FORECASTING FREEDOM OF INFORMATION  |  Endnotes

34	 The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications lists one professional
value and competency as: “Understand and apply the principles and laws of freedom of speech
and press for the country in which the institution that invites ACEJMC is located, as well as receive
instruction in and understand the range of systems of freedom of expression around the world,
including the right to dissent, to monitor and criticize power, and to assemble and petition for redress
of grievances”; see http://journalism.ku.edu/acejmc-professional-values-competencies.

35	 See http://www.rcfp.org/journalists-lawyers-ngos-mobilize-protect-freedom-press.

36	 In full disclosure, the author of this study has been a member of the NFOIC board since fall 2016.

37	 See, for example, the state constitutions of Florida (Section 24, http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/
index.cfm?submenu=3#A1S24) and Montana (Article II, Section 9, http://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca/
Constitution/II/9.htm), which include a right to access government information. Also, see a variety of
nations that have integrated that right into their constitutions at http://www.freedominfo.org/.
38	 Harold L. Cross, “The People’s Right to Know: Legal Access to Public Records and Proceedings”
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1953).
39	 Article 19, specifically: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes
freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas
through any media and regardless of frontiers.” http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-humanrights/.
40	 “Last Words: The Return of Anders Chydenius,” by Siiri Viljakka, http://www.painovapaus250.fi/en/
news/last-words. Note that the comic book focuses more on the principles of press freedom and
liberty than on FOI.

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Suite 3300
200 S. Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33131–2349
Telephone: (305) 908–2600

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