On the deadest of Fridays – between Christmas and New Years during the government shutdown – the Department of the Interior announced proposed changes to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations. It did not take long to determine that these changes were published in the Federal Register on December 28 for a reason: the Interior was trying to hide them, as the changes will be incredibly damaging to anyone’s ability to get records from that agency. In addition to allowing the agency to impose a monthly limit on requests it will process, the Interior is trying to redefine time “limits” under the law as time “frames.” This will allow the Interior to “treat FOIA requesters equitably by responding to a greater number of FOIA requests each month” (which is unprecedented and potentially unconstitutional); and will increase the burden on requesters to “reasonably describe” the records sought, allowing the agency to outright deny requests that might result in a high volume of responsive pages, and make it more difficult to qualify for expedited processing and for fee waivers.
Though AAN doesn’t often participate in federal rulemaking proceedings, we decided these proposed changes warranted a response for several reasons. First, the entire notion of these changes – and the reasons therefore – are simply offensive. The Interior is seeking to make it exponentially harder to obtain records from the agency under the guise that there has been a significant increase in requests filed with that agency over the past two years. Of course, this increase: (1) is evidence that active oversight of the Interior must continue and (2) is due to factors of the agency’s own creation, namely several controversial substantive policy changes and the well-documented malfeasance of former Secretary Ryan Zinke. We also know that the Interior’s actions and policies affect local communities around the country – as the Interior oversees National Parks, BLM lands, Native American reservations, mining operations, and much more.
The comments generally explain how many of the proposed changes both conflict with the statutory language of the Freedom of Information Act and constitute bad policy. You can read them for yourself here.
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