Last Saturday I represented OGIS and the National Archives and Records Administration at a conference on environmental Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issues at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law in Queens, New York. The conference, co-sponsored by the CUNY School of Law, CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and CUNY’s Law Center for Urban Environmental Reform, brought together lawyers, journalists, public advocates, students and a couple FOIA agency representatives to discuss using FOIA for environmental advocacy, litigation, and journalism. Throughout the day, seasoned FOIA requesters offered advice based on their experiences with the FOIA process.
I participated in both a breakout session for FOIA beginners and a panel that focused on the perspective of agencies responding to FOIA requests. Patrick Foster, a lawyer with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, joined me for the panel representing the state perspective. Our moderator was Professor Andrea McArdle from the CUNY School of Law. I explained the role of OGIS and challenges faced by Federal FOIA programs, and gave tips for navigating the Federal FOIA process; Patrick Foster focused on the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In addition to explaining the nuts and bolts of the FOIA administrative process, the panel focused on the importance of communication and the advantages of conducting research prior to submitting a request whether at the federal, state or local level.
While the context of environmental FOIA requesters is unique, the challenges they described in navigating FOIA are similar to those OGIS hears frequently: difficulties with delays, navigating FOIAOnline and agency FOIA web pages, and how to craft a FOIA that can be managed and addressed in the simple queue. The advice given by experienced requesters was also applicable to FOIA generally, including developing a rapport and communicating with FOIA officers; keeping FOIA requests small and specific; and doing research before filing a FOIA request by looking at what has been released to other requesters via FOIA reading rooms, FOIA logs and what is posted through FOIAOnline.
Throughout the day, artist Charlie LaGreca was working to capture the spirit and content of the conference. His final product is a great visualization of everything that was discussed.