Tag Archives: Donald Trump

SXSW: 4 bands headed to music fest denied entry into US

Organizers of the South by Southwest music festival say at least four international bands have been denied entry into the U.S. and that other performers have had their visa waivers revoked.

SXSW officials said this week that every year there are some issues with bands entering the U.S. for various reasons.

But the latest travel problems come amid tensions over President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

The band Massive Scar Era, whose members are from both Canada and Egypt, posted on Facebook it wasn’t going to “jump to conclusions” about why they were denied entry.

But they noted they have gotten to SXSW twice before with the same documents.

SXSW officials say they’re trying to ensure customs officials treat artist visa waivers as valid.

University disputes employee was fired for supporting Trump travel ban

A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse police dispatcher says she was fired for supporting President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

University human resources director Madeline Holzem sent a letter sent to Kimberly Dearman this week asking her to resign or be terminated, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

The letter says Dearman was investigated after a complaint from a colleague and was found to have violated university employee policies against unbecoming conduct and abusive or threatening language.

Dearman’s lawyer, Lee Fehr, said Dearman told a colleague the travel ban would prevent terrorists from entering the United States. She said those immigrants should go back where they came from.

“It is a very tragic situation that an employee in casual conversation would end up losing her job because another employee is somewhat offended,” Fehr said.

Fehr told the UW System Board of Regents that his client’s comments were spurred by an email from the university’s chancellor, Joe Gow. The email sent to faculty, students and staff rebuked the president’s move.

Gow said Dearman wasn’t fired for her political opinions.

“I want to be very clear,” Gow said. “We would never let someone go based on their political beliefs. We always follow due process and policy if anyone is let go.”

Fehr said his firm hasn’t taken any legal action, but that he asked the university to reinstate Dearman to her position.

Holzem said there was more to the story but declined to elaborate, citing possible legal action.

An alliance: Lefties, techies in San Francisco, team up against Trump

Before Donald Trump’s election, Laurence Berland viewed political protest as a sort of curiosity. He was in a good place to see it: San Francisco’s Mission District, once an immigrant enclave in the country’s heartland of radicalism that is increasingly populated by people like him — successful tech workers driving up rents while enjoying a daily commute to Silicon Valley on luxury motor coaches.

Berland regarded the activism of his adopted city with a mix of empathy and bemusement, checking out Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and protests against the gentrification of his own neighborhood. But now there is less distance between him and activists on the street.

On a recent day Berland stood with about 100 others — from software engineers like himself to those who work in tech company cafeterias — outside a downtown museum for a rally against President Trump. A clipboard-carrying organizer approached Berland to ask if he wanted to join a network of grassroots activists, but Berland waved him away. He had already signed up.

In the place that fought against the Vietnam War and for gay rights and, more recently, has been roiled by dissent over the technology industry’s impact on economic inequality, an unlikely alliance has formed in the left’s resistance against Trump. Old-school, anti-capitalist activists and new-school, free-enterprise techies are pushing aside their differences to take on a common foe.

For years, these two strands of liberal America have been at each other’s throats. There’ve been protests against evictions of those who can’t afford the Bay Area’s ever-soaring rents. And think back, not so long ago, to the raucous rallies to block those fancy buses shuttling tech workers from city neighborhoods to the Silicon Valley campus of Google, where Berland once worked.

Cat Brooks, a Black Lives Matter activist in Oakland, has seen the toll the tech industry has taken on some. Her daughter’s elementary school teacher just moved to a distant suburb after her rent skyrocketed, and Brooks thinks more tech money must find its way into local communities. She nevertheless welcomes the infusion of new energy to the protest arena.

“It’s not about the business of we were here first,” she said. “We’re about the business of how can we support? Division at this time is not helpful.”

The tech industry opposition started when Trump imposed his initial travel ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim nations. The industry prides itself on its openness to immigrants, who comprise about one-quarter of the U.S. technology and science workforce and include the founders of iconic institutions.

Nearly 100 tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Uber, filed a court brief urging suspension of the ban, while Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant, joined protests at San Francisco International Airport. That was followed by an unprecedented companywide walkout at Google and now, on March 14, nationwide rallies are planned for a “Tech Stands Up” day of protest.

“People in Silicon Valley, it’s really hard to get them excited about things that aren’t technical,” said Anita Rosen, a technology project manager who has started an activist group in the Valley suburb of Mountain View. “But everything that Trump says is the opposite of what we believe. He hates technology. He hates foreigners.”

Kai-Ping Yee moved to the Bay Area from Canada in 1998, earned his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and landed a job as a software engineer in Google’s philanthropic unit in 2007. Now he works at a startup to help immigrants send cash home. After the election he helped create an online pledge, signed by thousands of technology workers, against building databases for any potential Muslim registries or to aid deportations of immigrants. Yee is a Canadian citizen, though he is a legal permanent resident of this country, and he’s been shocked at having to think about a contingency plan should life in the U.S. become impossible.

“People whose pedigree is knocking on doors and calling representatives and waving signs are getting together with people who design apps,” Yee said. “People are working with people who do really, really different things because they realize it’s an emergency.”

Some aren’t so sure about sharing the streets because they don’t think they share the same goals.

Franki Velez, an Iraq War veteran on disability, stood outside an Oakland rental office recently with other longtime activists and renters fighting eviction. There was not a technology worker in sight, and she worried that they are missing the point anyway. They want to change, but preserve, a system that’s benefited them, she said, while protesters like her want to tear the system down and start from scratch.

“They don’t understand it’s a colonial system that’s never meant to be reformed,” she said.

Still, while their approaches can be strikingly different, Velez’s causes are increasingly being adopted by people not like her.

Velez’s group marched to a Wells Fargo branch to hand over a demand that the bank stop investing in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two hours later, in the comfortable Silicon Valley suburb of Campbell, biotech executive Michael Clark drew cheers after telling a gathering of anti-Trump activists that he’d closed his Wells Fargo account to protest the pipeline.

Clark grew up in New Hampshire and then in Silicon Valley, when his mother took a job at Apple in the 1990s. He always considered himself a political independent, a moderate. But Trump’s election horrified him and, with a friend who runs a gourmet chocolate shop, he founded a chapter of the national liberal group “Indivisible” in Campbell.

“The country has moved so much to the right that puts me in the middle with people I wouldn’t have previously been aligned with,” Clark said. “It’s interesting that someone like me is on the same side as a lot of socialists.”

University staff sign solidarity statement, vow not to help ICE agents

Roughly 700 Michigan State University employees have signed a statement vowing not to help federal immigration officials seeking to apprehend or deport students.

The Lansing State Journal reports the faculty and staff members signed the “statement of solidarity” with students who are refugees, immigrants or children of immigrants.

The statement says they support university President Lou Anna Simon, who said the East Lansing school “must not allow fear to change the nature of who we are.”

A release says the statement isn’t intended to be a call for disobeying laws, but a refusal to collaborate with federal investigators.

 

White House proposes reviving Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump

The White House’s fiscal 2018 budget plan for the U.S. Department of Energy includes $120 million to restart licensing for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada, a project stalled for years by lawsuits and local opposition.

The move signals that President Donald Trump may consider the site as a solution to extending the lives of existing U.S. nuclear power plants that have been hobbled by a lack of places to get rid of their spent nuclear fuel.

“These investments would accelerate progress on fulfilling the federal government’s obligations to address nuclear waste, enhance national security, and reduce future taxpayer burden,” according to a summary of the budget proposal.

Yucca Mountain has been studied by the U.S. government since the 1970s as a potential repository for the nation’s radioactive waste and billions of dollars have been spent on the project.

But it has never opened for business because of legal challenges and widespread opposition from local politicians, environmentalists and Native American groups.

In 2010, then-President Barack Obama withdrew the license to store waste at Yucca amid opposition from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.

Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, a former Texas governor, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing that restarting the Yucca Mountain project could not be ruled out, but that he would collaborate with states.

“I am very aware that this is an issue this country has been flummoxed by for 30 years. We have spent billions of dollars on this issue,” Perry told the hearing in January. “I’ll work closely with you and the members of this committee to find the answers to this issue.”

The White House proposal for the Department of Energy budget calls for an overall cut of 5.6 percent, which would include the elimination of some research programs.

Trump administration’s delegation to UN women’s conference includes hate group reps

The State Department announced this week that its official delegation to the 61st annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women includes representatives of two organizations known to oppose the UN human rights system, LGBTIQ rights, and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

These groups are the Center for Family and Human Rights and the Heritage Foundation. C-FAM is labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Heritage Foundation has called for a cut in funding for programs combatting violence against women and claims that anti-discrimination laws grant LGBT people “special privileges.”

OutRight Action International, a 27-year-old international LGBTI human rights organization with ECOSOC status, challenged the inclusion of these groups in the delegation to the UN CSW.

“In their Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley repeatedly pledged to uphold the right to be free from discrimination as an American value,” said Outright executive director Jessica Stern. “The appointment of these organizations to the official U.S. delegation undermines their positions. I urge Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley to ensure that the US delegation maintains non-discrimination at the CSW in the face of obvious pressure from these newly appointed members of the delegation.”

Outright said fundamentalist notions about how women and girls should behave should not be the basis of advising or negotiating U.S. foreign policy.

Stern said, it is also a “bad sign that two organizations that have tried to delegitimize the United Nations and human rights internationally now sit on the official US delegation. Maybe the violent mentality that got C-FAM labeled a hate group successfully panders to their base, but the US government must ensure protection for the world’s most vulnerable people.”

C-FAM regularly releases homophobic vitriol on its website, has called for the criminalization of homosexuality and has even espoused violence.

Its president, Austin Ruse, has said, “The penalties for homosexual behavior should not be jail time, but having some laws on the books, even if unenforced, would help society to teach what is good, and also would prevent such truly harmful practices as homosexual marriage and adoption.”

In defiance of evidence, Ruse has asserted that, “the homosexual lifestyle is harmful to public health and morals.”

During an interview in 2014, Ruse commented that he hoped his children would attend private colleges, “to keep them so far away from the hard left, human-hating people that run modern universities, who should all be taken out and shot.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has considered C-FAM a hate group since 2014.

The Heritage Foundation and its sister organizations has at least 11 past employees now working in the Trump administration and has provided much of the domestic and foreign policy blueprint the Trump administration used in its first days in office.

In its call to cut funding for programs combatting violence against women, the Heritage Foundation said such programs amount to a, “misuse of federal resources and a distraction from concerns that are truly the province of the federal government.”

The organization continually purports that anti-discrimination laws inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity are unjustified. It alleges that such laws, “do not protect equality before the law; instead, they grant special privileges.”

The organization steadfastly rallies against the rights of transgender people. It claims that, we “are created male and female and that male and female are created for each other.”

Stern said, “Practically speaking, the U.S. should support CSW conclusions that condemn discrimination on any basis, support family diversity and support the full range of conditions that enable women’s economic empowerment, including comprehensive family planning.”

The Foilies 2017: Recognizing the worst in government transparency

A thick fog is rolling in over Sunshine Week, the annual event when government transparency advocates raise awareness about the importance of access to public records.

We are entering an age when officials at the highest levels seek to discredit critical reporting with “alternative facts,” “fake news” slurs and selective access to press conferences — while making their own claims without providing much in the way to substantiate them.

But no matter how much the pundits claim we’re entering a “post-truth” era, it is crucial we defend the idea of proof. Proof is in the bureaucratic paper trails.

Proof is in the accounting ledgers, the legal memos, the audits, and the police reports.

Proof is in the data.

When it comes to government actions, that proof is often obtained by leveraging laws like the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public records laws —except when government officials seek to ignore the rules to suppress evidence.

At the same time, this is also par for the course.

As award-winning investigative reporter Shane Bauer recently posted on Twitter: “I’ve been stonewalled by the government throughout my journalistic career. I’m seriously baffled by people acting like this is brand-new.”

For the third year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presents “The Foilies,” our anti-awards identifying the times when access to information has been stymied or when government agencies have responded in the most absurd ways to records requests.

Think of it as the Golden Raspberries but for government transparency, where the bad actors are actually going off script to deny the public the right to understand what business is being conducted on their behalf.

To compile these awards, EFF solicited nominations from around the country and scoured through news stories and the #FOIAFriday Twitter threads to find the worst, the silliest, and the most ridiculous responses to request for public information.

 

The Make America Opaque Again Award: President Donald Trump

A commitment to public transparency should start at the top.

But from the beginning of his campaign, Trump has instead committed to opacity by refusing to release his tax returns, citing concerns about an ongoing IRS audit.

Now that he’s been elected, Trump’s critics, ethics experts, and even some allies have called on him to release his tax returns and prove that he has eliminated potential conflicts of interest and sufficiently distanced himself from the businesses in his name that stand to make more money now that he’s in office.

But the Trump administration has not changed its stance. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, the American public should be outraged that we now have the first sitting president since the 1970s to avoid such a baseline transparency tradition.

The Hypocrisy Award: Vice President Mike Pence

Pence cared a lot about transparency and accountability in 2016, especially when it came to email. A campaign appearance couldn’t go by without Pence or his running mate criticizing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for using a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. In fact, the Foilies honored Clinton last year for her homebrewed email approach.

But Pence seemed much less bothered by those transparency and accountability concerns when he used a private AOL email address to conduct official business as Indiana’s governor.

The Indiana Star reported in February that Pence used the account to communicate “with top advisors on topics ranging from security gates at the governor’s residence to the state’s response to terror attacks across the globe.”

That means that critical homeland security information was kept in an account likely less secure than government accounts (his account was reportedly hacked too), and Pence’s communications were shielded from government records requirements.

 

The Frogmarch Award: Town of White Castle, Louisiana

The only thing that could’ve made reporter Chris Nakamoto’s public records request in the small town of White Castle, Louisiana, a more absurd misadventure is if he’d brought Harold and Kumar along with him.

As chief investigator for WBRZ in Baton Rouge, Nakamoto filed records requests regarding the White Castle mayor’s salary. But when he turned up with a camera crew at city hall in March 2016 to demand missing documents, he was escorted out in handcuffs, locked in a holding cell for an hour and charged with a misdemeanor for “remaining after being forbidden.”

What’s worse is Nakamoto was summoned to appear before the “Mayor’s Court,” a judicial proceeding conducted by the very same mayor Nakamoto was investigating. Nakamoto lawyered up and the charges were dropped two months later.

“If anything, my arrest showed that if they’ll do that to me, and I have the medium to broadcast and let people know what’s happening to me, think about how they’re treating any citizen in that town,” Nakamoto says.

 

The Arts and Crafts Award: Public Health Agency of Canada

Journalists are used to receiving documents covered with cross-outs and huge black boxes. But in May 2016, The Associated Press reporters encountered a unique form of redaction from Public Health Agency of Canada when seeking records related to the Ebola outbreak.

As journalist Raphael Satter wrote in a letter complaining to the agency: “It appears that PHAC staff botched their attempt to redact the documents, using bits of tape and loose pieces of paper to cover information which they tried to withhold. By the time it came into my hands much of the tape had worn off and the taped pieces had been torn.

Even the wryest transparency advocates were amused when Satter wrote about the redaction art project on Twitter, but the incident did have more serious implications. At least three Sierra Leonean medical patients had their personal information exposed. Lifting up the tape also revealed how the agency redacted information that the reporters believed should’ve been public, such as email signatures.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said it would investigate, but Satter says he hasn’t heard anything back for 10 months.

 

The Whoa There, Cowboy Award: Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke

Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke rose to prominence in 2016 as one of then-candidate Donald Trump’s top surrogates, prone to making inflammatory remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, such as calling them a hate group and linking them to ISIS. But the press has also been a regular target.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political watchdog columnist Daniel Bice filed a series of records requests with the sheriff’s office, demanding everything from calendars, to details about an NRA-funded trip to Israel, to records related to a series of jail deaths.

So far, Clarke has been extremely slow to release this information, while being extremely quick to smear the reporter on the sheriff’s official Facebook page.

Clarke frequently refers to the publication as the “Urinal Sentinel” and has diagnosed Bice with “Sheriff Clarke Derangement Syndrome.”

“I deal with open records requests with local governments and police departments, I do it at the city, county, and state level,” Bice says. “He’s by far the worst for responding to public records.”

In May 2016, Clarke published a short essay on Facebook titled, “When Journalism Becomes an Obsession.” Clarke claimed that after he rejected Bice’s request for an interview, Bice retaliated with a series of public records requests, ignoring the fact that these requests are both routine and are often reporter’s only recourse when an official refuses to answer questions.

“This lazy man’s way of putting together newspaper columns uses tax-paid, government employees as pseudo-interns to help him gather information to write stories,” Clarke wrote.

Memo to Clarke: requesting and reviewing public records is tedious and time-consuming, and certainly not the way to score an easy scoop. If anything, ranting on Facebook, then issuing one-sentence news releases about those Facebook posts, are the lazy man’s way of being accountable to your constituents.

 

The Longhand Award: Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz

A local citizen in Portland, Oregon, filed a records request to find out everyone that City Commissioner Amanda Fritz had blocked or muted from her Twitter account. This should’ve been easy. However, Fritz decided to go the long way, scribbling down each and every handle on a sheet of paper. She then rescanned that list in, and sent it back to the requester.

The records did show that Fritz had decided to hush accounts that were trying to affect public policy, such as @DoBetterPDX, which focuses on local efforts to help homeless people, and anonymous self-described urban activist @jegjehPDX. Here’s a tip for officials who receive similar requests: all you need to do is go to your “Settings and Privacy” page, select the “Muted accounts” or “Blocked accounts” tab, and then click “export your list.”

 

The Wrong Address Award: U.S. Department of Justice

America Rising PAC, a conservative opposition research committee, has been filing FOIA requests on a number of issues, usually targeting Democrats.

Following Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the PAC sent a FOIA to the attorney general seeking emails referencing the death.

But America Rising never received a response acknowledging the DOJ received the request.

That’s because the DOJ sent it to a random federal inmate serving time on child pornography charges. The offender, however, was nice enough to forward the message to the PAC with a note railing against the “malicious incompetence” of the Obama administration.

 

The Redaction of Interest Award: General Services Administration

One of the threads that reporters have tried to unravel through the Trump campaign is how the prolific businessman would separate himself from his financial interests, especially regarding his 30-year contract with the federal government to build a Trump International Hotel at the location of the federally owned Old Post Office in D.C., a paper airplane’s flight from the White House.

BuzzFeed filed a FOIA request with the General Services Administration for a copy of the contract. What they received was a highly redacted document that raised more questions than it answered, including what role Trump’s family plays in the project.

“The American taxpayer would have no clue who was getting the lease to the building,” says reporter Aram Roston, who was investigating how Trump failed to uphold promises made when he put in a proposal for the project. “You wouldn’t know who owned this project.”

After pushing back, BuzzFeed was able to get certain sections unredacted, including evidence that Trump’s three children—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric—all received a 7.425 percent stake through their LLCs, seemingly without injecting any money of their own.

 

The Fake News Award: Santa Maria Police Department

In 2015, the Santa Maria Police Department in California joined many other agencies in using the online service Nixle to distribute public information in lieu of press releases. The agency told citizens to sign up for “trustworthy information.”

Less than a year later, police broke that trust. The Santa Maria Police posted to its Nixle account a report that two individuals had been arrested and deported, which was promptly picked up the local press. Months later, court documents revealed that it had all been a lie to ostensibly help the individuals — who had been targeted for murder by a rival gang — escape the city.

Police were fiercely unapologetic. The agency has yet to remove the offending alert from Nixle or offer any kind of addendum, a direct violation of Nixle’s terms of service, which prohibits the transmission of “fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading communications” through the service.

 

The Stupid Meter Award: Elster Solutions, Landis+Gyr, Ericsson

In May 2016, several smart meter companies sued transparency website MuckRock and one of its users, Phil Mocek, in a failed attempt to permanently remove documents from the website that they claimed contained trade secrets. Some of the companies initially obtained a court order requiring MuckRock to take down public records posted to the site that the city of Seattle had already released to the requester.

But in their rush to censor MuckRock and its user, the companies overlooked one small detail: the First Amendment. The Constitution plainly protected MuckRock’s ability to publish public records one of its users lawfully obtained from the city of Seattle, regardless of whether they contained trade secrets. A judge quickly agreed, ruling that the initial order was unconstitutional and allowing the documents to be reposted on MuckRock. The case and several others filed against MuckRock and its user later settled or were dismissed outright. The documents continue to be hosted on MuckRock for all to see. But, uh, great job guys!

 

The Least Productive Beta Testing Award: Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI spent most of 2016 doing what might be charitably described as beta testing a proprietary online FOIA portal that went live in March. But beta testing is probably a misnomer because it implies that the site actually improved after its initial rollout.

The FBI’s year of “beta testing” included initially proposing a requirement that requesters submit a copy of their photo ID before submitting a request via the portal and also imposed “operating hours” and limited the number of requests an individual could file per day.

Yet even after the FBI walked back from those proposals, the site appears designed to frustrate the public’s ability to make the premiere federal law enforcement agency more transparent. The portal limits the types of requests that can be filed digitally to people seeking information about themselves or others. Requesters cannot use the site to request information about FBI operations or activities, otherwise known as the bread and butter of FOIA requests. Oh, and the portal’s webform is capped at 3,000 characters, so brevity is very much appreciated!

Worse, now that the portal is online, the FBI has stopped accepting FOIA requests via email, meaning fax and snail mail are now supposed to be the primary (and frustratingly slow) means of sending requests to the FBI. It almost seems like the FBI is affirmatively trying to make it hard to submit FOIA requests.

 

The Undermining Openness Award: U.S. Department of Justice

Documents released in 2016 in response to a FOIA lawsuit by the Freedom of the Press Foundation show that the U.S. Department of Justice secretly lobbied Congress in 2014 to kill a FOIA reform bill that had unanimously passed the U.S. House of Representatives 410-0.

But the secret axing of an overwhelmingly popular transparency bill wasn’t even the most odious aspect of DOJ’s behavior. In talking points disclosed via the lawsuit, DOJ strongly opposed codifying a “presumption of openness,” a provision that would assume by default that every government record should be disclosed to the public unless an agency could show that its release could result in foreseeable harm.

DOJ’s argument: “The proposed amendment is unacceptably damaging to the proper administration of FOIA and of the government as a whole,” which is bureaucratese for something like “What unhinged transparency nut came up with this crazy presumption of openness idea anyway?”

That would be Obama, whose FOIA guidance on his first day in office back in 2009 was the blueprint for the presumption of openness language included in the bill. Perhaps DOJ thought it had to save Obama from himself?

DOJ’s fearmongering won out and the bill died. Two years later, Congress eventually passed a much weaker FOIA reform bill, but it did include the presumption of openness DOJ had previously fought against. We’re still waiting for the “government as a whole” to collapse.

 

The Outrageous Fee Award: Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services

When public agencies get requests for digital data, officials can usually simply submit a query straight to the relevant database. But not in Missouri apparently, where officials must use handcrafted, shade-grown database queries by public records artisans.
At least, that’s the only explanation we can come up with for why the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services estimated that it would take roughly 35,000 hours and $1.5 million to respond to an exceedingly simple request for state birth and death data.

Nonprofit Reclaim the Records, whose name pretty eloquently sums up its mission, believed that a simple database query combined with copy and paste was all that was needed to fulfill its request. Missouri officials begged to differ, estimating that it would take them the equivalent of a person working around the clock for more than four years to compile the list by hand.

Although the fee estimate is not the highest the Foilies has ever seen — that honor goes to the Pentagon for its $660 million estimate in response to a MuckRock user’s FOIA request last year — Missouri’s estimate was outrageous. Stranger still, the agency later revised their estimated costs down to $5,000 without any real explanation. Reclaim the Records tried negotiating further with officials, but to no avail, as officials ultimately said they could not fulfill the request. Reclaim the Records has since filed a lawsuit for the data.

 

The Dehumanization Award: New Orleans City Marshall

Public officials often dehumanize the news media to score cheap points, but can the same ploy work when fighting public records requests? That’s the issue in a very strange case between the IND, a New Orleans media outlet, and a city marshal. After the marshal lost his bid to keep records secret in the trial court, he appealed on the grounds that IND had no right to bring the lawsuit in the first place.

The marshal, who faced fines, community service and house arrest for failing to turn over records, argues that Louisiana’s public records law requires that a living, breathing human make a request, not a corporate entity such as IND.

Make no mistake: there is no dispute that an actual human filed the request, which sought records relating to a bizarre news conference in which the marshal allegedly used his public office to make baseless allegations against a political opponent, Instead, the dispute centers on a legal formalism of whether IND can sue on its own behalf, rather than suing under the name of the reporter. The marshal’s seemingly ridiculous argument does have some basis in the text of the statute, which defines a requester as a person who is at least 18 years old.

That said, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, putting the letter well over the spirit of the law in what appears to be a well-documented effort by the marshal to violate the law and block public access. We hope the learned Louisiana appellate judges see through this blatant attempt to short-circuit the public records law.

 

The Lethal Redaction Award: States of Texas and Arizona

BuzzFeed Reporters Chris McDaniel and Tasneem Nashrulla have been on a quest to find out where states like Texas and Arizona are obtaining drugs used in lethal injection, as some pharmaceutical suppliers have decided not to participate in the capital punishment machine. But these states are fighting to keep the names of their new suppliers secret, refusing to release anything identifying the companies in response to BuzzFeed’s FOIA requests.
At the crux of the investigation is whether the states attempted to obtain the drugs illegally from India. At least one shipment is currently being detained by the FDA. The reason for transparency is obvious if one looks only at one previously botched purchase the reporters uncovered: Texas had tried to source pentobarbital from an Indian company called Provizer Pharma, run by five 20-year-olds. Indian authorities raided their offices for allegedly selling psychotropic drugs and opioids before the order could be fulfilled.

 

The Poor Note-taker Award: Secretary of the Massachusetts Commonwealth

Updates to Massachusetts’ public records laws were set to take effect in January 2016, with Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin tasked with promulgating new regulations to clear up the vague language of the law. But Galvin didn’t exactly take his duty seriously. Instead he crafted a regulation allowing his office to dodge requirements that public records appeals be handled in a timely fashion. But no regulation could take affect without public hearing. So he went through the motions and dispatched an underling to sit at a table and wait out the public comment — but didn’t keep any kind of record of what was said. A close-up captured by a Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reporter showed a pen lying on a blank pad of paper. Asked by a reporter about the lack of notes, the underling said, “I was just here to conduct this hearing. That’s all I can say.”

 

The Foilies were compiled by EFF Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, Frank Stanton Legal Fellow Aaron Mackey, and policy analyst Kate Tummarello. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that defends civil liberties at the crossroads of technology and the law. Read more about EFF and how to support our work at eff.org.

 

This report was republished under a Creative Commons license.

Journalists mark Sunshine Week at extraordinary time in history

Whenever Donald Trump fumes about “fake news” or labels the press “the enemy of the people,” First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. hears echoes of other presidents — but a breadth and tone that are entirely new.

Trump may not know it, but it was Thomas Jefferson who once said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” said Hudson, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.

“But what’s unusual with Trump is the pattern of disparagement and condemnation of virtually the entire press corps. We’ve had presidents who were embittered and hated some of the press — Richard Nixon comes to mind. … But I can’t think of a situation where you have this rat-a-tat attack on the press on virtually a daily basis, for the evident purpose of discrediting it.”

Journalism marks its annual Sunshine Week, which draws attention to the media’s role in advocating for government transparency, at an extraordinary moment in the relationship between the presidency and the press.

First Amendment advocates call the Trump administration the most hostile to the press and free expression in memory.

In words and actions, they say, Trump and his administration have threatened democratic principles and the general spirit of a free society: The demonizing of the media and emphatic repetition of falsehoods. Fanciful scenarios of voter fraud and scorn for dissent. The refusal to show Trump’s tax returns and the removal of information from government websites.

And in that battle with the Trump administration, the media do not have unqualified public support.

According to a recent Pew survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents favored fair and open elections while more than 80 percent value the system of government checks and balances.

But around two-thirds called it vital for the media to have the right to criticize government leaders; only half of Republicans were in support.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that Americans by a margin of 53-37 trust the media over Trump to tell the truth about important issues; among Republicans, 78 percent favored Trump.

“We’re clearly in a particularly polarizing moment, although this is something we’ve been building to for a very long time,” says Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, a leading news and commentary source for journalism.

“I think one of the mistakes the press made is we became perceived as part of the establishment. And I think one of the silver linings of the moment we’re in is that we have a renewed sense of what our mission is and where we stand in the pecking order, and that is on the outside, where we belong.”

Hudson, ombudsman of the Newseum’s First Amendment Center, says it’s hard to guess whether Trump is serious or “bloviating” when he disparages free expression. He noted Trump’s comments in November saying that flag burners should be jailed and wondered if the president knew such behavior was deemed protected by the Constitution (in a 1989 Supreme Court ruling supported by a justice Trump says he admires, the late Antonin Scalia).

Hudson also worries about a range of possible trends, notably the withholding of information and a general culture of secrecy that could “close a lot of doors.” But he did have praise for Trump’s pick to replace Scalia on the court, Neil Gorsuch, saying that he has “showed sensitivity” to First Amendment issues. And free speech advocates say the press, at least on legal issues, is well positioned to withstand Trump.

“We have a really robust First Amendment and have a lot of protections in place,” says Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education center based in St. Petersburg, Florida. “That doesn’t mean that attempts won’t be made. But when you compare our country to what journalists face around the world, I still think the U.S. is one of the safest places for a journalist to criticize the government.”

The First Amendment, which states in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” is far broader and more uniquely American than when ratified in 1791.

At the time, free expression was based on the legal writings of Britain’s Sir William Blackstone. The First Amendment protected against prior restraint, but not against lawsuits once something was spoken or published. Truth was not a defense against libel and the burden of proof was on the defendant, not the plaintiff. And the Bill of Rights applied to the federal government, but not to individual states, which could legislate as they pleased.

The most important breakthrough of recent times, and the foundation for many protections now, came with the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case of 1964.

The Times had printed an advertisement in 1960 by supporters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that noted King had been arrested numerous times and condemned “Southern violators of the Constitution.” The public safety commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, L. B. Sullivan sued for libel. He was not mentioned by name in the ad, but he claimed that allegations against the police also defamed him. After a state court awarded Sullivan $500,000, the Times appealed to the Supreme Court.

Some information in the ad was indeed wrong, such as the number of times King was arrested, but the Supreme Court decided unanimously for the Times. In words still widely quoted, Justice William Brennan wrote that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” He added that a libel plaintiff must prove “that the statement was made … with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

“It was breathtakingly new,” First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams said of Brennan’s ruling. “It was an extraordinary step the court was taking.”

But freedom of speech has long been championed more in theory than in reality. Abraham Lincoln’s administration shut down hundreds of newspapers during the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson championed the people’s “indisputable right to criticize their own public officials,” but also signed legislation during World War I making it a crime to “utter, print, write, or publish” anything “disloyal” or “profane” about the federal government. During the administration of President Barack Obama, who had taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, the Wilson-era Espionage Act was used to obtain emails and phone records of reporters and threaten James Risen of The New York Times with jail.

Predicting what Trump might do is as difficult as following his views on many issues. He often changes his mind, and contradicts himself.

During the campaign last year, he spoke of changing the libel laws to make it easier to sue the media. But shortly after the election, he seemed to reverse himself. He has said he is a “tremendous believer of the freedom of the press,” but has worried that “Our press is allowed to say whatever they want and get away with it.”

Trump’s disparagement of the media has been contradicted by high officials in his administration. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said recently that he did not have “any issues with the press.” Vice President Mike Pence was an Indiana congressman when he helped sponsor legislation (which never passed) in 2005 that would protect reporters from being imprisoned by federal courts. In early March, he spoke at a prominent gathering of Washington journalists, the Gridiron Club and Foundation dinner.

“Be assured that while we will have our differences — and I promise the members of the Fourth Estate that you will almost always know when we have them — President Trump and I support the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment,” he said, while adding that “too often stories make page one and drive news with just too little respect for the people who are affected or involved.”

Trump administration actions inspire editorial cartoonists

Donald Trump’s attacks on the media and unsubstantiated claims have inspired one group of journalists — editorial cartoonists.

Since the president’s inauguration, his exaggerations and running battles with reporters have provided regular fodder for the artists who help drive the country’s political discourse through daily illustrations on the nation’s opinion pages.

Four of them — Jim Morin of the Miami Herald, Jack Ohman of The Sacramento Bee, Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and Kevin Siers of The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina — contributed drawings specifically for Sunshine Week. The celebration of press freedom and the fight for government transparency falls each year around the birthday of James Madison, who was instrumental in passing the Bill of Rights.

Ohman, a Pulitzer Prize winner, said the actions of the Trump administration remind him of Richard Nixon’s presidency, an era that sparked his interest in politics and cartooning.

“Fast forward to 2017 and we have a new type of Nixon presidency, where they’re not transparent and they’re lying a lot of the time and you don’t know what to believe,” Ohman said. “In a way, my career, in terms of commentary, has come back full circle.”

He said Sunshine Week is a reminder that journalists must continue fighting for free-speech protections and government transparency.

One of his cartoons for this week plays off Trump’s recent comment calling the media “the enemy of the people.” Its panels show journalists engaged in their routine work _ covering city council meetings, reporting on environmental disasters, writing about high school sports.

“So when we have the atmosphere of people saying negative things about you and calling into question your very existence, calling into question the First Amendment, calling into question freedom of expression, that has a chilling effect,” he said. “I think what it’s made me want to do is hit even harder than I probably normally would because I think it’s so important to be able to express myself.”

Amid attacks, journalists need to focus on Trump’s actions

As I’ve listened to President Donald Trump go on tirades against the “very dishonest” media, I’ve tried not to take his criticism personally. Lord knows, I’ve made my share of mistakes in my career. But they’ve never been on purpose, or out of malice.

In fact, after more than 30 years, I can still remember the phone call from a grieving relative when I misspelled a name in an obituary (I wrote Ronald instead of Roland). This was before articles were published online, so print newspapers were the permanent record. The man’s family had to live with my error. However Trump bashes journalists, he’ll never make me feel as bad as I did back then.

So here’s the truth:

The press is not the opposition party. The media is not the enemy of the American people. Negative stories are not fake news.

And when Trump keeps making these claims, he isn’t just attacking the press; he is chipping away at one of the pillars of our democracy.

It means something that a president who is all over the map on policy is so single-minded about going after reporters every chance he gets. In a recent tweet, Trump raised the stakes, calling the media “a great danger to our country.”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Trump again bashed “fake news,” though he’s the one with only a passing relationship with the truth. He complained about leaks and anonymous sources, though his administration is perfectly happy to take advantage of both. He even claimed that the media says its coverage can’t be criticized because of freedom of the press.

“I love the First Amendment; nobody loves it better than me,” he said. “Nobody.”

He has chutzpah, I’ll give him that.

But what’s more alarming is that he also said the media “doesn’t represent the people, it never will represent the people and we’re going to do something about it.”

It’s not clear what the president plans. He talked during the campaign about changing the law so that it’s easier for politicians to sue for libel and slander _ a terrible idea that would discourage robust reporting.

And what if an unhinged supporter takes Trump’s rhetoric seriously and literally and physically assaults a journalist? What will the president say then?

Trump is choosing a phrase — “enemy of the people” — that has been used by communist dictators and Nazi propagandists.

Unfortunately, only a few Republican leaders stood up to that attack on a free press: “Without it,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, “I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

Trying to control coverage, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has called only on friendlier media outlets at some news conferences. He took it a step further during a recent question-and-answer session, blocking reporters from several major news organizations that have had critical coverage of Trump, including looking into the administration’s Russia connections.

Another part of the White House strategy, it seems, is to trap reporters. When there are leaks, officials sometimes wait until after the news story is published to respond. This apparently happened earlier this month when The Associated Press reported that a draft memo showed the administration was considering calling up National Guard troops for immigration raids.

It’s a cynical ploy. The administration can see how popular its ideas are and pull them back if they’re too controversial. When the most extreme versions don’t happen, it further damages the media’s credibility. And if the public is unsure about what’s real, it opens up more room for Trump to do what he wants.

So reporters need to be aggressive, but also careful. Journalists can’t get too defensive, or distracted from doing our jobs, or lose sight of what Trump is actually doing _ giving Wall Street free rein, looking out for the wealthy and tearing down government.

This is going to be a long struggle, day after day. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, made that clear, declaring at CPAC that the war with the media is “not going to get better. It’s going to get worse.”

Yet, times of crisis like this bring clarity. Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, said Sunday on CNN that the mission of news organizations is clearer than it has been in years — to hold Trump and others in power accountable.

He’s absolutely right, but it’s more important for the public to support a free press. And this would be a good time, with Sunshine Week, the annual recognition of the importance of a public’s right to know, taking place this week.

It’s encouraging that a new poll found that Americans trust their favorite news source over Trump, 67 percent to 29 percent.

It’s also great to hear from people like Charles Marchant of Placerville: “I just want to say thank you for being here, for doing your job and for doing your part in our democratic system,” he wrote in a letter to the editor.

“I write not to grind any particular ax, but to let you know I do NOT consider the press my enemy. I value the hard work you do, which is a vital role in our society.”

Thanks a lot, Mr. Marchant. We’ll keep doing our best, whatever President Trump throws our way.

Foon Rhee is an associate editor and editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee.