Dec. 4, 2008
Public Citizen’s Public Interest FOIA Clinic Offers Litigation Assistance to Nonprofits and Public Interest Advocates
Foiaclinic.org to Spur Release of Crucial Records from Federal Government
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Over the past eight years of the Bush administration, many public interest organizations that have been denied documents they need to pursue their advocacy goals have turned to Public Citizen for assistance. Today, Public Citizen is launching the Public Interest FOIA Clinic, an online resource that will help nonprofit organizations obtain federal government documents. The FOIA Clinic will help ensure that agencies live up to a high standard for openness and accountability and that public interest organizations can receive the information they need to further their work.
Through the Public Interest FOIA Clinic (foiaclinic.org), the Public Citizen Litigation Group – a division of Public Citizen – will provide a range of direct litigation assistance to public interest organizations, from initial advice about requesting documents to pro bono representation in litigating the denial of a request. Litigation assistance is particularly essential to the many public interest organizations that have substantive expertise in their field but lack substantial FOIA litigation experience.
The FOIA Clinic also hosts a database, which will help Public Citizen recognize and address the barriers public interest advocates encounter when making FOIA requests by inviting groups who have filed FOIA requests to share problems. As one of the few organizations that provide legal representation in FOIA cases to other public interest groups, Public Citizen is in a unique position to collect this type of information and identify common problems.
In conjunction with the clinic, the Public Citizen Litigation Group also has revamped its longstanding Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, which allows users to access information written in lay terms about how to file a FOIA request and provides in-depth resources for legal research on FOIA.
The clinic can help a wide range of organizations with a broad number of issues. Public Citizen has litigated more than 300 open government lawsuits over more than 35 years, including the high-profile case that gained access to the Nixon administration’s Watergate tapes and the case that first established that electronic records generated by the White House and the rest of the executive branch are subject to federal open records laws.
In launching the clinic, Public Citizen draws on its long history of litigating on behalf of nonprofit organizations to obtain information from the government. For instance, in a suit brought by the United Farm Workers and Farmworker Justice against the U.S. Department of Labor, Public Citizen obtained full release of documents pertaining to employer applications to hire workers under a guest worker program and a waiver of all fees. Public Citizen also represented Students for Sensible Drug Policy in a successful suit against the U.S. Department of Education over the fees it was being charged for the processing of a FOIA request seeking information relating to the number of students denied federal student aid due to prior drug convictions. And just this week, Public Citizen filed a suit on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to compel the release of a report linking cell phone use while driving to traffic fatalities.
Attorney Margaret Kwoka received an Equal Justice Works fellowship with the Public Citizen Litigation Group to launch and administer the clinic. She and other FOIA experts at Public Citizen will oversee the site and provide assistance to organizations filing requests.
“When President Johnson signed FOIA into law in 1966, the U.S. government made tremendous progress toward openness and accountability,” said Kwoka. “The Bush administration reversed this by encouraging agencies to find excuses to deny access to information, which was particularly damaging to public interest organizations’ ability to advocate effectively. Public Citizen’s FOIA Clinic will seek to help restore disclosure as a priority at federal agencies and allow public interest organizations to better serve their communities.”