And that exemption is narrow, covering the Commercial Space Flight Authority. Usually several new exemptions pass during a session, she said.
Rhyne spoke to the Virginia Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists March 22, as part of the chapter’s celebration of Sunshine Week.
Rhyne gave the chapter a rundown of FOIA activity during the 2011 Assembly session and of other measures affecting journalists and newspapers. It was a successful year on the Hill, she said.
One bill, signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell yesterday, would double the penalties for a willful and knowing FOIA violation committed by a public official. Rhyne said while that sounds good, judges actually have been loath to impose such fines. There has been only one instance where a judge levied a penalty, and it was overturned on appeal, she said.
One bill that VCOG successfully fought would have been problematic for journalists. That measure would allow a government official to petition a court for relief if he or she felt “harassed” by a requestor or believed that the requestor was abusing his or her FOIA rights.
Other measures that did not survive the session:
· Several electronic public notice bills were defeated this session, through the efforts of the Virginia Press Association and VCOG. The bills would have permitted the publishing of notices on a government website, rather than in a newspaper. Similar bills have been introduced for the past several sessions; VCOG opposes them on public access grounds. She warned, though, that the report from McDonnell’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, issued last fall, favors posting on government sites.
· A state shield law for journalists was introduced, but pulled by its sponsor, Del. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, over concerns about the definition of “journalist.” The VPA, among others, will be working with the delegate on a new bill over the summer.
Rhyne, who was a legal journalist in Texas for a number of years before returning to Virginia, serves as a statewide resource for citizens and journalists. She reported a number of trends she sees:
· More and more FOIA cases involve school boards, over both records and proceedings
· Custodians of information have been using the tactic of asking a requestor to narrow the scope of a request before responding.
· Members of boards or commissions have been holding two-by-two meetings or “daisy-chaining,” in which two officials meet, then each go and meet with one other member, sharing information. Since FOIA applies when three officials meet, the two-by-twos aren’t necessarily illegal.
· Utah recently passed the most restrictive public records law in the nation, earning it SPJ National’s “Black Hole Award.” Rhyne said that the governor signed the bill because he feared a veto would be overwritten; however, he wants a special session of the Utah legislature to rewrite the revised law.