Navigating freedom of information changes in the age of social media


Good afternoon,

I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

That iconic Beach Boys song from the ’60s  came to mind when I looked into proposed legislation to spiff up  Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act (FOAI).

Over the weekend, I prepared a column on  Senate Bill 155, but wanted to get both sides of the issue.

I sent out a couple of Emails – one to the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, and the state Department of Justice.

Justice Department spokesman Mat Marshall responded the next day with well-crafted answers to my questions. Matt, while defending the measure, acknowledged the tension that exists between public officials and the media.

When it came to Evans Gay, a freshman state senator from Brandywine Hundred,  it took a couple of requests to get a response.

A Senate staffer forwarded the responses and pointed to tweets and a Facebook post from the senator over the weekend on a decision to pause the bill to allow more discussion. 

Silly me, I thought as I read the posts.  Didn’t I  know that social media is the first place to look for a response from a public official?

Generation gaps aside, the question that remains is the extent of the FOIA  abuses that take place. 

I still suspect this an all-too-common piece of Delaware legislation addressing problems that could be fixed with minor tweaks.

In reading the bill, it appears that denial of records requests could  become more cumbersome, especially with a hostile government entity with plenty of lawyers on hand.

The  Delaware Coalition for Open Government says the bill could make Delaware the most expensive state in the nation when it comes to copying and other fees for public records requests. The Attorney General’s office denies that claim.
The bill comes at a time when media outlets are struggling for survival. All too often,  it is difficult if not impossible for a reporter or media outlet to have the time or resources to pursue a complicated FOIA request.
Individuals seeking information would face even more formidable barriers.
Over the decades, the public information landscape has changed. Gone are the days when one could sit down at a courthouse or other public building and go through records or microfiche.
Much is available online, but technology also allows the government to make the process of reviewing records more difficult.
Yes, we have “citizen journalists” cases with an agenda and financial backing making sweeping  FOIA requests. Commercial interests can also abuse the process to gain an edge over competitors.
It is possible that  FOIA laws should get a fresh look that focuses on privacy issues or those who abuse the process.
Also,  some of us in the media have not understood basic ways of doing business.
One example is lingering criticism of the  Delaware Prosperity Partnership shielding information on its actions in the sometimes murky world of economic development.
For better or worse, confidentiality is the name of the game when a company is looking around for a new site. DPP is doing little that is different from its predecessor, the Delaware Economic Development Office. 

Even so,  Senate Bill 155 is a largely unnecessary piece of legislation that is a step in the wrong direction.  – Doug Rainey, chief content officer.

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