One of the virtues of behemoth media is they could fund lawsuits against the government over Freedom of Information Act access. But as big orgs found their cash cushions become whoopie cushions and the media splinters into hand-to-mouth entities, such suits are harder to pursue. A 2009 Media Law Resource Center survey revealed increasing FOIA violations and decreasing resources to pursue such cases.
Monday, the Knight Foundation (disclaimer: MinnPost funder) announced a $2 million, three-year fund to support state Freedom of Information groups. The Knight press release quotes one Florida editor asking, “If the newspapers aren’t around to fight for [FOIA] information, who will?” Apparently, as with some aspects of journalism coverage, the foundation sector will. As the National Freedom of Information Coalition noted in its release:
… without the press serving as the enforcement arm for the sunshine laws, more government officials will deny access with impunity, especially because government seldom enforces the access laws against public officials who violate them.
Soon, stern letters from journalists and their lawyers will be mere cries of wolf, and while journalism struggles to figure out “what’s next,” this much is certain: government grows more secretive at the state and local level, with less pushback than ever before.
Without another source to fund access fights—to finance the private attorneys’ general function formerly served by the fourth estate—we will see that sunshine laws will themselves be paper tigers.
The Knight FOI Fund will be that source.
It’s a big deal, but won’t get us back to even; for example, attorneys will be expected to take the cases pro bono, but the Knight cash will pay for court costs, filing and deposition fees so willing lawyers won’t have to dig into their pockets. Just as the news future requires multiple approaches, so will filling the FOIA gap. But this is a really good start.