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Law & Courts Federal File

FOIA Request Elicits Greetings and Blank Pages

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 25, 2008 1 min read

Nearly three months and several follow-up phone calls and e-mails later, Education Week received a response to a request for information on a long-awaited federal commission that will review reading research.

It came in more than two months past the deadline, but was it worth the wait? A look through the 86 pages the Department of Education provided this month should answer that question.

The pages are almost completely blank, except for the “To” and “From” fields, the date and subject lines, and a sentence or two of greetings and pleasantries. That includes pages where the subject line on e-mail exchanges is “Education Week.”

The Education Department says that virtually all the content in the e-mail exchanges requested under the Freedom of Information Act is exempted from disclosure because that content is part of the decisionmaking process.

The decisionmaking process in the case of the Commission on Reading Research has been going on for more than four years. Education Week sought the exchanges after a promised announcement of commission members was stalled by the department in December, the latest of several hurdles since plans for the panel were first disclosed in 2002. (“Plans for Federal Reading Panel Hit a New Roadblock,” Dec. 12, 2007.)

The Bush administration has used the FOIA’s exemption related to “predecisional” communications far more aggressively than previous administrations, according to Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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For more stories on this topic see our Federal news page.

But the exemption does not allow the blanket redaction, or editing, of correspondence if factual information contained in the communications is considered public.

“They can’t just say we haven’t made up our minds yet; … therefore, anything we communicate about this commission is predecisional,” Ms. Dalglish said. “This doesn’t pass the smell test. … They probably can do it legally, but at some point, I think they owe the taxpayers an explanation of what the heck they’ve been up to.”

Education Week is preparing an appeal.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week

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