What’s the Worst FOI Fail of 2011? Nominate it for the Black Hole Award…

Society of Professional Journalists

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The Society of Professional Journalists is seeking nominations for its Black Hole Award.

The Black Hole serves as the counterpoint to the Sunshine Award, highlighting particularly heinous violations of the public’s right to know. By exposing the bad actors, we hope to educate members of the public to their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with the people’s right to acquire government information so that they may hold their elected officials accountable and enhance self-governance. 

The recipient of the 2011 Black Hole Award was the Utah Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert for passage of the most regressive freedom of information legislation in recent history. After the award was “presented,” the measure was repealed before it became law.

“The first Black Hole award given by the society had tremendous impact,” SPJ Freedom Of Information Chair and Utah FOI advocate Linda Petersen said. “The award’s real power is the exposure it gives to those practices by some elected officials that seek to undermine, and in some cases, eliminate open government. Like Utah’s law that was repealed, most of them can’t stand the light of that exposure.”

In addition, SPJ handed out dishonorable mentions to five other government entities for their secrecy.

 Here are the conditions nomination should meet:

1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This would mean either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example, conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, e-mail discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.

 2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. There needs to be a demonstration that this was not an isolated incident or done in relative ignorance. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. We want to avoid using the award to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Essentially we want to see a case where their withholding the information hurt the general public rather than an individual, or its release would further public welfare.

The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee is seeking nominations from local SPJ chapters, SPJ members, other journalists and private citizens. The recipient or recipients will be announced during Sunshine Week, the second week of March.

Deadline for nominations is Monday, Feb. 21. If possible, nominations should include, where possible, supporting documentation to allow SPJ to determine if the criteria have been met. The documentation can include any of the following, although the more documentation the better: 

• News coverage of the violation.

• Public records chronicling the dispute.

• Legal papers if there was a lawsuit or other legal action involved in the matter.

• Any expert opinion from an attorney, official or open-government expert that the violation occurred.

• Contact information for the parties involved to allow the committee to obtain more information if needed, including from the government official.

Please email nominations to FOI committee member Mike Farrell, farrell@uky.edu, or mail them to the address below.

 

Mike Farrell, Ph.D.

Director, Scripps Howard First Amendment Center Associate professor, School of Journalism and Telecommunications

144 Grehan Building

 Lexington, KY 40506-0042

 

 

 

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