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Nonprofits seeking public information at record rates

Advocacy groups are filing more lawsuits against the federal government for access to public records than ever before, according to a report released last week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a federal information research center based at Syracuse University.

According to the clearinghouse’s analysis, nonprofits and advocacy groups filed more than 200 FOIA lawsuits as of April 2017 — the most in a 12-month period since the center started tracking in 2001. Lawsuits filed by nonprofits now account for about 40 percent of all FOIA lawsuits.

During the first year of the George W. Bush Administration, these organizations accounted for only 47 lawsuits. Since then, the numbers have steadily increased, the analysis showed.

The organizations that have sought public records span the political spectrum.

Judicial Watch, Inc., a conservative organization that looks to hold the government accountable, filed more than 300 FOIA lawsuits, the most of any nonprofit or advocacy group.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a legal organization that advocates for individual rights,  filed 117 lawsuits. The watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed 77 lawsuits.

But the upward trend isn’t just explained by a surge in filings from a few active litigants.The study found that between the Bush and Obama administrations the number of different organizations that filed lawsuits increased by 50 percent.

Among the lawsuits is one from the ACLU seeking records on the U.S. raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy Seal in January, Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit for Obama’s schedule, and Muslim Advocates filed for information on the search of individuals’ electronic devices after President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban.

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The courts play an important role in ensuring that FOIA is effective, said Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the ACLU.

“It’s crucial in that context that courts scrutinize the government’s claims,” he said. And “that they apply FOIA’s presumption in favor of public disclosure and that they examine both the legal theories that the government is putting forward about FOIA and the factual reasons that the government often asserts for withholding a particular document.”

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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