Center files FOIA suit against Education Department

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On President Obama’s first full day in office, a White House news release announced that the president was “instruct[ing] all members of his administration to operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government,” particularly in dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests. The Center for Public Integrity is not yet feeling the love.

On Thursday the Center filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education, which has repeatedly refused to recognize the Center as a member of the news media. Under FOIA, media requesters pay reduced processing fees.

Since March, the Center has filed four different FOIA requests with the department, as part of our investigation of government and college policies dealing with sexual assaults on campuses; stories will be released later this fall. In response to the first request, the Department of Education classified us as “a commercial requester based on a review of [the Center’s] website where membership is required to receive the full benefits of your organization.” The Center, however, is a nonprofit organization, not a commercial operation. And while we like to think there are many benefits to Center membership, nonmembers enjoy equal access to all of the Center’s publications.

The Center appealed that decision, supplying the department with copies of investigative reports we have issued, a list of the journalism awards we have won, and a reminder that we prevailed in a similar lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services two years ago. The department never decided that appeal but continued to classify the Center’s subsequent requests as commercial or non-media requests. The Department has actually given the Center documents in response to several of the FOIA requests, dropping the processing charges on a case-by-case basis while continuing to refuse the Center official news media status.

The Center’s lawsuit asks the court to order the Department of Education to classify the Center as a representative of the news media. The Department has 30 days in which to file a response.

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