File a FOIA, Get Sued

Government agencies forget they work for the public.


Martin Bowling/flickr

State and local agencies around the country have taken to suing people who file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the Associated Press reports.

The agencies don't sue the citizens for monetary damage, saying they simply want a judge to rule on whether the records ought to be released. But the requesters are responsible for their own legal fees. When agencies deny FOIA requests and lose subsequent lawsuits, by contrast, they are on the hook for the requesters' legal fees. Suing them is a pre-emptive meassure.

The rhetoric around the suits often centers on the privacy rights of government employees. (The requests might involve information about individual officials' salaries, school enrollment, disciplinary records, and so forth.) But the government is supposed to work for the people. When police departments, for example, cite privacy as a reason not to release disciplinary records, they withhold vital information about people the government has entrusted with great power.

A bill in Michigan seeks to ban the practice in that state. It passed the state House unanimously earlier this year.

"Government shouldn't file a lawsuit and go on offense. Either approve the request or deny it," the bill's Republican sponsor, Rep. Klint Kesto, told the Associated Press. "This shouldn't be happening anywhere in the country."