Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

FOIA and Sponsored Programs Administration. (Commentary)

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

FOIA and Sponsored Programs Administration. (Commentary)

Article excerpt


The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), viewed by some people today as a methodical and even burdensome means for gaining access to previously unavailable information and records, was born in controversy over the notion of opening up the federal government's once closed record keeping and sharing process. Research administrators (RAs) are involved daily with various aspects of this legislation and yet have limited knowledge about its implementation and potential vulnerbility.

The Case for FOIA

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the FOIA into law in 1966, the enactment culminated a 12-year battle to determine whether the executive or legislative branch of the government would control access to public records (McMasters, 1996). Between June of 1964 and October of 1965, government officials actively resisted the proposed openness to records. In fact, Johnson's own press secretary, Bill Moyers, publicly criticized the bill and its implications for loosening governmental control over sensitive information. Due to the ongoing controversy surrounding FOIA (McMasters), it is not surprising that President Johnson signed the bill at the LBJ Ranch, on the last day before a mandatory veto would have occurred--without publicity, without even a press conference, and without the distribution of ceremonial pens.

Even after the bill became law, the resistance continued. It was not until 1974, when the Act was first amended, that FOIA began to work as initially intended. The 1974 amendments provided that any person has a right to request and gain access to government records and information, except where those records are protected by nine exemptions pertaining to the following: (a) matters of national security, (b) internal agency rules, (c) that which is governed by other statutes such as the Income Tax Code, (d) business information (such as trade secrets, commercial/financial information, and formulas), (e) internal government memos, (f) private matters [anything that would lead to any invasion of privacy, as protected under the Privacy Act of 1974], (g) law-enforcement investigations, (h) regulation of financial institutions, and(i) oil wells.

It is noted, however, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), that "...[e]xcept for the statutory exemption [exemption c], these exemptions, for the most part, are not mandatory--which means that the government is permitted, but not required, to withhold the information. Even if records fall within these categories, they still can be released at the government's discretion. This is particularly true if [one] can show that disclosure would be 'in the public interest'...." In addition, RCFP explains that "...even though portions of a requested document may be covered by an exemption, the [FOIA] requires the government agency to release the remainder of the document or file after the exempt material has been edited out ...." (Daugherty, 1998, p. 16).

For those working with federally funded proposals and those who request the information within them, the important exemptions are those for business information and private matters. These exceptions pertain to requests for proposals for contract work with the Department of Defense, which could entail matters of national security (exemption a), activities conducted by businesses or corporations (or even such organizations as institutions of higher education) that might involve trade secrets (exemption d), or geological research that might reveal the location of oil wells (exemption i).

The 1974 amendments also included the stipulation that the government must respond to requests within 10 working days of the date of the request. This was later extended to 20 days under the Electronic FOIA amendments of 1996. In addition, the 1974 amendments make clear that private organizations and businesses need not release information to the public, whether or not that information is submitted to the federal government; however, information submitted to the government by an organization, and this includes private corporations, state/local government entities, and nonprofit organizations, including institutions of higher education (say, via a proposal for funding) must be made available to a requester through FOIA, provided the information is not protected under the exemptions. …

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