Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media. One time he got run over by a car.
The High Cost of Suing the Government for Access to Information
Thursday, March 08, 2012 - 04:00 PM
On last week's show and earlier this week on the blog, On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman talked about her "Go FOIA Yourself" project, which has her attempting to see how much information the federal government might be keeping on her. An eagle-eyed commenter on Sarah's last post pointed us toward an article by Erin Siegal in the Columbia Journalism Review which outlines the process of suing governmental agencies for refusing to release information requested through FOIA. More importantly, the article sheds light on just how costly the legal process can be.
By way of example, one of the stories Siegal uses is that of June Maxam, the publisher of the online North Country Gazette, who decided to represent herself in a FOIA lawsuit "after being quoted a price of $7-10,000 for professional legal representation."
“We could not afford that amount of money,” Maxam told me via e-mail. “Each attorney we had consulted told us [our case] should be a “slam dunk” because of case law precedent, and we had two supporting formal opinions from the NYS Committee on Open Government, but no one would help us pro bono…. it was decided to proceed pro se rather than drop the issue.”
Maxam and her co-plaintiff, a local government official, won their case—sort of—in January after filing a suit in September 2011 demanding access to records kept by a local volunteer fire department. The judge ruled that the requested documents had to be turned over, but that the fire department’s meetings weren’t subject to New York’s Open Meetings Law. Appeals for the case, which Maxam says was her first related to public records, are now being heard.
The article enumerates a number of resources for people who have been rebuffed by government agencies when trying to procure information via the Freedom of Information Act, but it also outlines the financial and time costs associated with this kind of litigation. It's definitely worth a read. You can read the entire article by following this link. (Thanks to Jennie Overleap for the recommendation!)