Advocates for a free press are challenging an Interior Department proposal to limit requests for access to public records under the federal Freedom of Information Act, saying Thursday the moves would “clamp down on transparency.”
Separately, Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, asked acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a letter late Wednesday to extend the almost-over 30-day public comment period and hold agency public hearings on the proposed changes.
An agency spokeswoman said the agency would respond to Grijalva’s letter “in a timely manner.” Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort responded to Grijalva’s calls for more public input on the restrictions, saying Thursday that agency officials “are very pleased with the robust 1,700 comments we received thus far.”
Grijalva wrote that the proposed restrictions overall “would undermine government transparency and impose more burdens on Americans who are seeking information from federal agencies.”
Reporters, watchdog groups, nonprofits and other members of the public use FOIA requests to gain information on government actions and decision-making. The Freedom of Information Act codifies the right of the public to access records from any federal agency, with narrow exceptions.
Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Thursday that some of the Interior Department’s proposed changes run “directly contrary” to the act.
The Interior Department’s proposal would authorize the agency to “not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search” of agency documents. The proposed rule also would add a clause that “the bureau may impose a monthly limit for processing records in response to your requests.”
The agency said that change would allow for more equitable treatment of the various people and groups asking for records.
The Interior Department said the restrictions were necessary because it had experienced an “exponential” increase in records requests and litigation over records requests since the Trump administration took office.
Any jump in records requests “probably speaks to the fact that the public and the press is really interested in what’s going on at the Department of Interior,” Marshall said.
“The solution to increased public interest and attention is not to clamp down on transparency,” he added.
Marshall said the organization would submit a letter detailing its objections as part of the Interior Department’s public-comment period, which ends next week.
The Associated Press is among the news organizations signing on to the group’s letter.
AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said in a statement that the news organization urges the Interior Department “to reconsider its proposal, which would greatly infringe upon the public’s right to know and understand the inner workings of its government. AP condemns such restraint of public information and any move by a government agency to undermine transparency.”
Vander Voort said the Interior Department would extend its public-comment period by one day, to deal with a technical glitch in the process that started the clock ticking on the legally required public-comment period when the proposed rule was released Dec. 28.
Beyond that, Vander Voort said in an email, “We are treating any extensions of the comment period the same as other regulations, ensuring the public has the sufficient time to provide their input.”