Court Urged to Closely Scrutinize Agencies’ Redactions of Public Records
The Animal Legal Defense Fund files amicus brief seeking to prevent industries from using public record exemptions to hide information from the public.
SAN FRANCISCO — Today the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in a case that focuses on the public’s right to access records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the brief, the Animal Legal Defense Fund argues that courts need to carefully review federal agencies’ claims that business information can be withheld from the public.
In the case, Charles Seife, a science writer and professor, is suing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for access to information pertaining to the approval process for a controversial human drug. In responding to Seife’s FOIA request, FDA withheld information vital to determining whether the agency acted properly in approving the drug. FDA claimed the information could be withheld under FOIA’s Exemption 4, which protects privileged and confidential information.
In 2016, the Animal Legal Defense Fund secured a groundbreaking victory in its nearly decade-long suit against the FDA for improperly withholding information about egg-laying hen facilities under Exemption 4. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Animal Legal Defense Fund and reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for FDA, remanding the case back to the district court for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether FDA’s withholdings were proper. As a result, the court ordered FDA to release four out of five categories of information it had previously withheld. This information is crucial to the public’s understanding of egg production, as well as to the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s advocacy.
Today’s brief urges the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to reverse the lower court’s summary judgement in favor of the FDA, and instead follow the ruling made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that courts should conduct evidentiary hearings to determine whether information in question is actually privileged or confidential.
“FOIA is a critical tool to hold government agencies, like the FDA, accountable to the people—and not private industry,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The Animal Legal Defense Fund routinely uses FOIA to bring transparency to and take action on cruel industry practices and the government complacency that allows them.”
Federal agencies must disclose requested information under FOIA unless one of nine exemptions apply. However, agencies frequently defer to private companies’ assertions that information is privileged or confidential and should therefore be redacted. This has led to Exemption 4 being invoked by federal agencies more broadly than intended, allowing companies to hide information that the public rightfully deserves access to under FOIA. This will continue in the absence of clear legal precedent that not only properly clarifies the narrow scope of Exemption 4, but that demonstrates courts will closely scrutinize federal agencies’ use of the exemption.
FOIA continues to be one of the public’s most powerful transparency-forcing tools. Over the past five years, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed at least 40 FOIA requests with federal agencies to obtain information about animal industries that thrive in secrecy.
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