Reporters and organizations have tussled with federal agencies more than usual in recent years over the release of documents under the Freedom of Information Act. There are signs, however, that information will be more freely available now, thanks to the courts and a new executive order by President Barack Obama.
One of those organizations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, won a round with the Department of Education last month in federal court. The group, which uses FOIA, litigation and research to uncover what it believes to be corrupt activities in government, filed a request with the department two years ago seeking information on meetings between then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, other federal education officials, and commercial publishers.
The department decided that CREW was ineligible for a fee waiver and would have to pay for staff time and printing costs to process the request. Similar FOIA requests by other groups have been halted when the department suggested they could cost upwards of $100,000. CREW appealed the decision to the department repeatedly until it was sent to the U.S. District Court for judgment.
Congress requires that federal agencies waive those fees if the information is “in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government” and is “not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”
CREW now expects the department to start fulfilling the request. It is looking for calendar entries and correspondence that show if and when publishers met with federal officials. Much of the controversy over the Reading First program—the subject of a series of inspector general reports in 2006 and 2007—was about real or perceived favor given to some publishers.
President Obama, meanwhile, issued an executive order last month that could make more government documents available under FOIA. The order reverses some restrictions President George W. Bush placed on the release of information.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week