How business interests shaped US public records law: Q&A with Jeannine Relly

How business interests shaped US public records law: Q&A with Jeannine Relly

Clark Merrefield |
June 28, 2019

The Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — lets anyone request records from federal agencies. Federal agencies have to provide requested records, with exemptions.

Putting those exemptions aside for a moment, one guiding principle of the federal FOIA law is to shine light on the inner workings of government institutions that American tax dollars pay for. The concept is straightforward: the public has a right to know what the government is doing with its money.

Journalists use FOIA to tell stories about government dealings that otherwise might be shut away forever. But obtaining information through FOIA can get tricky in practice, especially when government business and private industry interests overlap, which they often do.

We talked recently with Jeannine Relly, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, about how business interests have shaped FOIA amendments since the act was passed in 1966. Relly has extensively studied international right-to-know trends in journalism. In 2016 Government Information Quarterly published her paper, “How Business Lobby Networks Shaped the U.S. Freedom of Information Act: An Examination of 60 Years of Congressional Testimony,” written with Carol Schwalbe, director of the UA School of Journalism.

Relly and Schwalbe found that businesses — not journalists — have filed the majority of FOIA requests over the decades. They examined thousands of pages of congressional testimony and found particularly since the 1980s that business interests have “played a key role in shaping the FOIA.”

About those FOIA exemptions

There are nine exemptions to the federal FOIA law. One key exemption is Exemption Four, which allows a federal agency to withhold information related to trade secrets.

Creditb by - Journalist’s Resource

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