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Public records requests fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic

Washington Post – “With most government employees still working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, the disclosure of public records by many federal agencies and local government offices nationwide has worsened or even ground to a halt. When the pandemic was declared in early March, many employees at local, state and federal agencies abandoned their offices and began working remotely. Employees tasked with answering open-records requests have been forced to rely on telework computer systems that are often incompatible with the software used to process records requests…The federal and state laws that require government agencies to disclose their records — generally referred to as FOIA, or Freedom of Information Act, laws — are powerful tools that have been used to expose the behind-the-scenes government machinations on matters of public interest…But the coronavirus pandemic has impeded access to government records at a time of great public interest in official responses to the health crisis, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives nationwide. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides legal support for journalists, has catalogued more than 130 instances in which state and local officials in 39 states and the District of Columbia cited the pandemic as a reason to curtail access to public records.

At the beginning of the covid outbreak in the United States, the Reporters Committee realized very quickly that not only was transparency especially important for the public during this time, but also that there was a huge threat to this transparency posed by covid,” said Adam Marshall, the Knight litigation attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Many state and local jurisdictions tried to do “the best they could under the circumstances,” according to Marshall, “but many took pretty extreme measures, some agencies essentially telling requesters: We’re not going to respond to your requests until covid is over.” This is troubling, Marshall said, because “public-records laws are, in many instances, the only legal mechanism for the public to pry information out from the government.”..

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