March 7, 2011

In a Victory for Government Transparency, U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Broad Interpretation of Freedom of Information Act Exemption

WASHINGTON, D.C. -  The U.S. Supreme Court today delivered a victory for government transparency in Milner v. Department of the Navy, when the court refused to allow an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to become an "all-purpose back-up provision to withhold sensitive records." Public Citizen had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of itself and other organizations that support government transparency.

The case concerned FOIA requests for records showing the distances at which explosions at Naval Magazine Indian Island in Puget Sound, Washington, would be felt. Glen Milner, a resident of the region, filed the requests to determine whether he and his neighbors would be at risk in the event of such an explosion. 

Although the records contained mathematical formulas and technical maps, not personnel rules or employee practices, the Department of the Navy claimed the records could be withheld under FOIA Exemption 2, which applies to records "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency." The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed.

This morning, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. "No one staring at these charts of explosions and using ordinary language would describe them" as "personnel rules and practices," the Court explained.

The Court rejected the argument that Exemption 2 covered all internal rules and practices that guide employees in discharging their duties. Such an interpretation, the Court noted, "has no basis in the text, context, or purpose of FOIA," and would "pos[e] the risk that FOIA would become less a disclosure than a 'withholding statute'." Instead, the Court held, the exemption "encompasses only records relating to issues of employee relations and human resources."

The decision is an important victory for government transparency. The government has increasingly relied on an expansive reading of Exemption 2 to withhold records that do not fall within one of FOIA exemptions. "This morning's ruling ensures that Exemption 2 will not become a catch-all that allows the government to keep vast amounts of information from the public, contrary to FOIA's goal of allowing the public to know what its government is doing," said Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney who authored the friend-of-the-court brief.