FOIA study will protect citizens

Published 9:24 pm Wednesday, March 19, 2014

By Ginger Stanley

Spring is the perfect time of year to celebrate Sunshine Week. This weeklong national initiative began in 2005 and continues to spotlight the importance of open government and the public’s right to know.

In Virginia, we have an extra special reason to rejoice and participate in a meaningful way. This week, March 16-22, is the kick-off to a two-year study of the most important citizens’ law — the Freedom of Information Act.

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Virginia code section 2.2-3700 gives you the right to obtain government information. Everything is presumed public. You can inspect records and attend meetings of the state and its political subdivisions, such as county and city governments, unless the FOIA or another state law specifically permits secrecy.

House Joint Resolution 96 directs the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council to study all exemptions contained in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to determine their applicability or appropriateness.

Government is not intended to be conducted in secrecy. Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act ensures that state, regional and local government actions are transparent and carried out in the public’s view. The citizens of the commonwealth have a substantial interest in continuing to secure access to the records and meetings of Virginia governmental entities at all levels.

During the past 14 years, the time since the last substantive rewrite of FOIA laws in Virginia, dozens of new exemptions have been added, one by one, by the General Assembly. Most have been a compromise between local and state agencies and the access community and so the majority of the 172 exemptions will need little attention during the study.

However, when the council finds that an exemption is no longer necessary, is unclear or simply is not in the public’s best interest, change should happen. Each organization or group afforded an exemption should be called before the FOIA Council to defend its exemption.

HJR 96 also directs the council to examine the organizational structure of FOIA and make recommendations to improve the readability and clarity of FOIA. It is important that our laws be “citizen-friendly” and organized simply so that all users will be able to understand how they may apply these valuable documents to their everyday lives.

This will not be an easy task due to the large volume of information and the fact that this law has been thoroughly studied and rewritten twice since its beginning in 1968, and reorganized once, in 2004.

Each of these times, positive, forward-thinking improvements happened. First Amendment experts, citizens, legislators, local and state agency officials, lobbyists, newspaper publishers and editors all gave their time to work through, debate and compromise on aspects of FOIA.

In 1988 and 1998, the General Assembly created special commissions. By 2004, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council was in place and was tasked with the job of placing similar exemptions into categories such as trade secrets. It seemed like a good choice at that time, but it did not take into consideration how many new exemptions would be added each year.

And the best part of HJ 96, the FOIA Council shall consider comment from a range of stakeholders — citizens of the commonwealth; representatives of state and local government entities; broadcast, print and electronic media sources; open-government organizations; and other interested parties.

By including all persons in the study of the people’s law, the General Assembly has confirmed the importance of open records and open meetings. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and allowing citizens to play an active role in their government at this basic level.

You can make a difference by participating at hearings and in work groups, by writing letters or emails and by making phone calls. It is a great way to start enjoying the welcome sunshine of spring.

Ginger Stanley is executive director of the Virginia Press Association. Contact her at