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‘When FOIA Goes to Court: 20 Years of Freedom of Information Act Litigation by News Organizations and Reporters’
In 2020, news organizations and individual reporters filed 122 different Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits to compel disclosure of federal government records. A new report by the FOIA Project, which aims to provide the public with timely and complete information about every instance in which the federal government grants or withholds records under FOIA, indicates this is more than any year on record according to federal court data dating back to 2001.
A project of the University’s Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the FOIA Project is a “FOIA accountability engine,” updated daily, that includes detailed information about every case that challenges government withholding in federal court. TRAC has started expanding coverage to decisions on FOIA administrative requests on an agency-by-agency basis.
“Journalists are a powerful force for government transparency and accountability, which is essential to a healthy democracy,” says Austin Kocher, research assistant professor with the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse in the Newhouse School. “Each FOIA lawsuit we analyzed represents a case where the news media believed that the government was withholding records that should be available to the public—and many of them were successful. Our findings show that reporters increasingly leverage FOIA law to provide the public with timely information and independent news stories about how our government works at a time when federal government agencies seem more politicized than ever.”
In fact, the media alone have filed a total of 386 FOIA cases during the four years of the Trump administration, from 2017 through 2020. This is greater than the total of 311 FOIA media cases filed during the sixteen years of the Bush and Obama administrations combined. The report, “When FOIA Goes to Court: 20 Years of Freedom of Information Act Litigation by News Organizations and Reporters,” focuses on news media “FOIA litigants” (a.k.a. “FOIA plaintiffs”), including both traditional news organizations and alternative news sources when their primary purpose is to be a news source.
The FOIA Project’s analysis found that since Jan. 1, 2001, the news media has filed a total of 697 separate FOIA cases in federal court. Looking at these cases reveals 374 distinct plaintiffs, 117 news organizations and 257 individual reporters. A few key FOIA litigators rise to the top. The top ten filers make up less than 3 percent of all plaintiffs, yet they accounted for 281 of the 697 FOIA cases—40 percent of the total suits filed.
To view the list of top 10 FOIA litigators as well as a more expansive list of rising stars in the FOIA litigation community, view the FOIA Project’s full report. Using the FOIA Project’s unique dataset of FOIA cases filed in federal court, this report provides unprecedented and valuable insight into the rapid growth of media lawsuits designed to make the government more transparent and accountable to the public.
The complete, updated list of news media cases, along with the names of organizations and reporters who filed these suits, is available on the News Media List at FOIAProject.org.