UA School of Journalism Director to Testify at Senate Hearing on FOIA

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By Amanda Ballard, University Communications March 10, 2014

Dave Cuillier will testify at a hearing titled "Open Government and Freedom of Information: Reinvigorating the Freedom of Information Act for the Digital Age."

Dave Cuillier is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Dave Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, will appear before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Tuesday to give feedback on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Cuillier, who is also president of the Society of Professional Journalists, will testify on March 11 at a hearing titled "Open Government and Freedom of Information: Reinvigorating the Freedom of Information Act for the Digital Age." The hearing is scheduled to begin at 7:15 a.m. local time and will be available via webcast here.

The hearing aligns with Sunshine Week 2014, a national initiative that involves news media, civic groups, libraries, schools and nonprofit agencies to promote the importance of an open government.

"The Senate is really interested in taking a look at how it can help improve citizens' access to federal government," Cuillier said. "There are just a bunch of things that need to be done because really the process is broken."

Despite his reservations that certain aspects of government should remain private, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act on July 4, 1966. It went into effect the following year. The law gives U.S. citizens the right to obtain access to federal agency records, except when the requested information is protected by one of nine exemptions or one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.

According to the Freedom of Information Act's website, 651,254 information requests were received in 2012 fiscal year. Of those, more than 300,000 were denied, partially denied or backlogged, meaning they were not responded to within the law's 20-day standard time limit and were still pending at the end of the fiscal year.

Cuillier believes the exemptions are troublesome.

"Any agency can very easily deny a request because the language is so loose," he said. "It's been 50 years of loosening. Congress needs to get out its socket wrench and tighten it up."

Though the Freedom of Information Act was the "gold standard" at one point, Cuillier said that 90 other countries have written similar laws and the U.S. has since fallen behind.

"Our laws really aren't very good compared with other countries, and certainly our application of the laws aren't very good either," he said.

Cuillier added that a mediator agency needs to be established to help citizens access government information. The Office of Government Information Services was created in 2009 for that purpose, but Cuillier said it's understaffed and lacks authority carry out requests.

"Mexico, for example, has an independent agency that helps citizens access their government," he said. "Why can't we have that in the U.S.?"

He also believes the process could be improved.

"This should be just like ordering a pizza from Domino's," Cuillier said. "If you've ever done that online, it tells you where your pizza is in the process and when it's going to be delivered. The government should do the same thing with requesting information. It should be clear, simple, easy and transparent."

Another contributing factor for Cuillier is society's general increasing support of privacy. As the Internet makes personal data more and more accessible, people are generally more likely to support secrecy if they think it will protect them, Cuillier says.

"Ironically, it does just the opposite," he said. "While the government and corporations collect a lot of information about you and me, it's harder to get information about the government."

Though technology has made it easier to share data and some agencies do post information to their websites, Cuillier says the information is selectively chosen, incomplete or, in some cases, missing entirely.

As technology continues to advance, he said he hopes measures will be established to improve and enforce the Freedom of Information Act in the future.

"The law is very important; it gives teeth to our citizens to get information," he said. "It's our government. We're the bosses, and every boss has the right to know what their employees are doing."

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