SCOTUS Limits Access to Government Records

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled to expand the definition of one federal law to limit public and media access to government records.

The issue being contested was what the term “confidentiality” meant in terms of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Some deem this to be anything that is intended to be kept a secret, while many others agree that it should be seen as only referring to information that could cause harm if it became publicly known.

Public interest groups and media organizations are in favor of fewer FOIA requests made confidential, making the definition much narrower and only applying to harmful information. However, both the federal government and the Food Marketing Institute, a retailer’s trade group argue for a broader definition that keeps much more information from the public eye.

The case began in 2011 when the Argus Leader newspaper, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, requested data under the Freedom of Information Act. Their application asked the Department of Agriculture to release the annual amounts paid by taxpayers to over 320,000 retailers who participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

This information was needed to complete a project the newsroom was looking into at the time. This included finding any intel on fraud in the food stamps program as well as food access deserts.

However, the Agriculture Department refused to give the newspaper the data they had requested, saying that it was confidential.

In response, the Argus Leader sued. From there, the case seemed to hop its way around in several courts, first in the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and later back to the federal district court in South Dakota, where the newsroom is located. The federal district court judge ruled that the information should be released.

And while the government did not appeal this ruling, the Food Marketing Institute did. So the case went back to the Eighth Circuit. There, in 2018, the court agreed with the former decision to release the information. The case was then requested to be brought before the Supreme Court, where it was decided that the information would not be made public.

As far Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the 6-3 decision, is concerned “At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is ‘confidential’ under the meaning of (FOIA).”

The Food Marketing Institute believes that giving the information out violates congressional intent. Instead, they asked the Supreme Court to allow businesses, such as themselves, to decide whether such information should be kept confidential or not. Other industry groups, as well as the US Chamber of Commerce, also support this move.

However, Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor disagree on the matter, as does Argus Leader. They are not pleased with Monday’s decision and say they will continue to fight for this right.

Breyer notes that “the whole point of FOIA is to give the public access to information it cannot otherwise obtain.” He went on to say, “Given the temptation, common across the private and public sectors, to regard as secret all information that need not be disclosed, I fear the majority’s reading will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness, or bureaucratic inertia.”

Argus Leader seconds this by saying that government spending is at the very heart of the FOIA and why Congress created it, taxpayer payments to food stamps retailers included.