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Arizona professor Cuillier schools Congress on Freedom of Information Act

Arizona professor Cuillier schools Congress on Freedom of Information Act

UA professor David Cuillier spoke as one of 10 experts about the current implementation of public records access under the Obama administration.

The hearing held on March 18, entitled “”Administration of the Freedom of Information Act: Current Trends,”” lasted just under two hours and included two panels, one on government agencies and one about those who request records, like assistant journalism professor Cuillier. These panels were meant “”to aid transparency and accountability,”” according to chairman of the board William Lacy Clay.

The hearing was during “”Sunshine Week,”” which, according to www.sunshineweek.org, is “”a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.””

“”Requesters are forced to be adept at what I call psychological warfare,”” Cuillier said. “”It’s a cat-and-mouse game and it shouldn’t be that way.””

Cuillier, the Society of Professional Journalists freedom of information committee chairman, remained frustrated with the lack of openness within federal agencies.

The Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 and amended several times since, contains barriers, according to agencies and requesters. The Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee in the Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing to discuss issues and solutions.

“”FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) was designed … to provide our citizenry with the legal means to access government information,”” said Patrick McClatchy, ranking minority member of the committee. “”Over a year into (President Barack Obama’s) administration, the American people should be seeing more transparency than this. It’s my hope that our witnesses will be able to shed some light on this overreliance on certain FOIA exemptions and the delay in implementing the President’s directives.””

Cuillier pushed for further reform of the directives McClatchy noted.

“”If the president were in my class, I’d give him an A for effort but probably a C for execution,”” Cuillier said.

He noted the work of the committee, but gave a representative view of public records requesters from the point of view of a journalist and researcher, as he is both.

“”I think what you’re doing here is extremely important,”” he said. “”The past year has been refreshing. However, I think that the perception of requesters is that we’re not quite there yet. We have backlogs, delays, redactions that are extreme, exemptions applied broadly, a variety of strategies used to skirt FOIA.””

Cuillier expressed his frustrations over the lack of openness under the law as a former journalist and current researcher.

“”Most journalists frankly don’t use FOIA due to the frequent delays and denials,”” he said.

His co-panelists mirrored his sentiment, saying there is still work to be done.

Although no resolutions were passed, the hearing gave Clay and others on the board written testimonies as well as proposals of what could be further explored.

The Office of Government Information Systems was created in 2007 and opened its door in September of last year to combat this problem.

With mediation services and directed government agency oversight, the office strives to make “”FOIA and the implementation of FOIA more efficient and effective,”” according to Mirian Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Systems.

Cuillier and the other experts acknowledged it’s the first of many steps in the right direction.

“”I found that accessing records is often more about people than the law. It’s this human factor that leads me to teach journalists the interpersonal dynamics of getting records.”” Cuillier said. “”That’s why I think it’s imperative to fix the laws and develop a culture of openness in government.””

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