A bill that would force the government to respond more quickly to Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists and others passed the House Tuesday, according to a pleased Society of Professional Journalists, and it now heads to the president's desk.
The bill is intended, in part, to try to prevent the current months- and even years-long delays for government responses to journalists' -- and others' -- requests for information.
Government agencies are currently supposed to respond within 20 days to FOIA requests, but a George Washington University study released last month found that numerous requests had been languishing for more than one decade.
The bill puts more teeth in enforcement, clarifying deadlines for responding to requests, imposing penalties for missing deadlines, clarifying that requests also apply to outside contractors holding government documents and establishing a system for tracking requests.
One improvement over the earlier proposed bill is that this version would make it easier for journalists to recover legal fees. The bill would not only toughen the FOIA shot clock, but it would expand the definition of journalist to include requests by bloggers and free-lancers.
“Passage of the FOIA bill will allow not only members of the press, but all Americans, to hold their government more accountable,” SPJ president Clint Brewer said in a statement. “In a time when First Amendment rights are under attack almost daily in this country, this bill is a major step toward ensuring that America has a free press and a government that is transparent and open.”
The American Civil Liberties Union added its congratulations for passage of the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National (OPEN) Government Act.
“For more than 40 years, FOIA has been one of the strongest tools Americans have to obtain government records created at taxpayer expense, and the OPEN Government Act makes FOIA more effective," said ACLU policy counsel Mike German. "This law will be a first step to make sure FOIA’s original purpose doesn’t disappear into the shadows of a closed government bureaucracy. Americans have the right to know whether their government is acting in their interests or acting to hide the truth, and strengthening FOIA is a way to hold our officials accountable."