Clinic coalition leads effort to limit Supreme Court’s ruling in Food Marketing Institute

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 decision Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader (FMI) dramatically changed the landscape of the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) Exemption 4 for “confidential” “commercial or financial” “information.” But a coalition of transparency clinics — led by Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic in tandem with Yale’s Media Freedom & Information Access Clinic as well as co-counsel from Vinson & Elkins’s Tom Leatherbury — is pushing back in a case in the Southern District of New York.

These clinics represent science journalist Charles Seife, who argued in summary judgment papers in September and December in front of Judge Furman that 2016 FOIA amendments limit the scope of the Food Marketing Institute decision, and that even under the Supreme Court’s new test, Seife should prevail in his efforts to obtain critical information related to the efficacy of an important FDA-approved drug.

The coalition argues that the textualist approach employed by the court in FMI applies equally to a new standard, enacted by Congress in 2016, known as the “foreseeable harm” requirement — an issue not considered in FMI, which involved a 2011 FOIA request prior to the effective date of these amendments. This standard requires agencies to reasonably foresee a harm from disclosure of the sought-after information before blocking its release.

In Seife’s case, neither the government (specifically, the FDA and HHS) nor the private intervenor-defendant (a drug company known as Sarepta Therapeutics) meaningfully engaged on the issue of whether there was a finding of foreseeable harm in this case, arguing instead that FMI decided issues related to the foreseeable harm standard even though they were never presented to the Supreme Court.

Seife also makes other important arguments:  That the 2016 amendments baked into FOIA a public interest in “knowing what the government is up to” as well as a rigorous and meaningful standard for the new FMI test that does not simply allow the government to state that information is “confidential” to render it so.

The case is now fully submitted to Judge Furman, and the clinics are awaiting a decision.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the team for fighting so long and hard on this case,” Seife said. “Journalists, especially freelancers, often don’t have the resources to fight in court for information withheld by the government. In this case, however, Yale and Cornell and Vinson & Elkins have made it possible to push for documents that are important for the public to understand not just what the government is doing behind the scenes when it approves drugs, but also crucial to understanding the safety and effectiveness of new medications.”

Read more from the clinics’ filings in the case:

Photo by Joe Ravi is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

UC Irvine’s IPAT Clinic wins disclosure of child services records

This post originally appeared on the IPAT Clinic’s website on September 16, 2019.

Students from the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic won disclosure of government records earlier this year, revealing how social workers failed to protect a 10-year-old Los Angeles boy from years of alleged physical abuse, eventually ending with his death and murder charges being filed against his mother and her boyfriend.

The clinic’s client, journalist Garrett Therolf, published a lengthy story about the boy, Anthony Avalos, in the Los Angeles Times on September 4 based in part on the documents obtained by UCI students.

Students Cassie Doutt, Shanxi Feng, and Emily Asgari filed a petition with the Los Angeles Superior Court’s juvenile court division in March 2019 on behalf of Therolf, a staff writer at the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program, asking the court to unseal records from the LA Department of Children and Family Services detailing years of alleged abuse of young Anthony.  In July, a judge ordered most of the records unsealed, and Garrett was provided the documents in late August.

The students are part of the IPAT Clinic’s Press Freedom and Transparency practice, headed by UCI Staff Attorney Susan E. Seager, providing pro bono legal services to journalists, documentary filmmakers, and others.

Photo by Mathieu Marquer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic files amicus brief arguing for broader access to government databases

The Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic filed an amicus brief (pdf) in March in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on behalf of a group of data journalists and media organizations, advocating for a different approach to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests relating to databases. The brief supports the Center for Investigative Reporting in an appeal arising out of a FOIA request submitted by CIR to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

CIR requested data from ATF’s firearm trace database, seeking records about firearms that were originally owned by law enforcement. In its denial of the FOIA request, ATF cited the Tiahrt Amendment, a rider contained in annual appropriations acts from 2003 to 2012. The Tiahrt Amendment prohibits disclosure of firearm trace information in response to FOIA requests, but allows the release of “statistical aggregate data.” Unfortunately, some courts have held that agencies are not required to release aggregate data that they have not already compiled because it constitutes production of a “new record,” which is not required under FOIA.

The lower court ruled in favor of ATF,  finding that CIR’s request would require ATF to create a new record. A Ninth Circuit decision on this case has the potential to shape FOIA jurisprudence relating to databases, which will have wide-reaching effects since more and more records are being stored in database format.

The Cyberlaw Clinic’s amicus brief focused on whether searching, filtering, sorting, and other forms of database manipulation constitute the creation of a new record. Amici explain how databases like the one used by ATF are structured, and how a database can be queried to yield information in various arrangements. While courts have previously analyzed databases as analogues to massive filing cabinets storing thousands of records, amici show that a database is like no filing cabinet that has ever existed. In fact, databases may have more in common with the famed Room of Requirement at Hogwarts than with how documents were stored on paper.

The amici include sixteen individual data journalists and professors of journalism, and five media-related organizations. All of them have a significant interest in a strong right of access to records held in government databases based on their extensive experience with government transparency processes, including FOIA, and with the technical aspects of working with structured data, including databases.

The media-related organizations are:

  • Investigative Reporters and Editors, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting.
  • The Media Law Resource Center, a non-profit professional association for content providers in all media, and for their defense lawyers, providing a wide range of resources on media law and policy issues.
  • MuckRock, a journalism and government transparency non-profit that has helped thousands of requesters around the United States better file, share, and understand Freedom of Information requests.
  • Freedom of the Press Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and defends public interest journalism focused on transparency and accountability.
  • The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an unincorporated nonprofit association whose attorneys provide pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists

The individual journalists include Matt Carroll, Meredith Broussard, Dhrumil Mehta, Cheryl Phillips, Dan Keating, Lucia Walinchus, and Zita Arocha.

By focusing on real-world uses of databases, amici show that there is no practical difference between accessing full records from a database and compiling a list of entries. Amici then point out that the content-index distinction has led to murky jurisprudence in the past and continuing to apply this distinction to databases would require arbitrary line-drawing and lead to absurd results. In the database context, almost any presentation of the data is a record that already exists, and agencies should be required to produce records accordingly.

The Cyberlaw Clinic is honored to have represented these amici and hopes the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will seriously consider their input. The brief was written by Clinical Instructor Mason Kortz, Clinical Instructional Fellow Kendra Albert, and Spring 2019 clinical students Alena Farber, Ariel Hoffman, and LeHeng Li.

This post originally appeared on the Cyberlaw Clinic’s blog on March 29, 2019. As of August 2019, the case is still pending.