VCOG exec: ’11 session went well for FOIA

Only one new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act made it through the 2011 General Assembly, according to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

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.

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