The pandemic has shuttered government offices across the country, slowing down Freedom of Information requests. In New York, several agencies are reporting delays due to the crisis, worsening what advocates and journalists say was an already burdensome process.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, New York’s Freedom of Information Law—or FOIL, which mandates government records be made available to the public, with certain exceptions—was oft criticized by good government groups and journalists. A 2019 survey by City Limits garnered stories about records requests that were denied or dragged out unresolved for months or years, and a number of the city’s current mayoral candidates have pledged to overhaul the system for increased transparency.
When the coronavirus crisis struck last year, government agency offices across New York and the nation were shuttered and moved to remote access, furthering exacerbating many of those issues at a time when public access to information is more vital than ever. At the height of the pandemic, about two-thirds of states had suspended or altered their public records policies in response to the crisis, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has been tracking the impact on these laws over the last year.
At the national level, certain agencies also suspended or severely limited their processing of federal Freedom of Information Act or FOIA requests, citing the ongoing emergency: the State Department, for instance, claimed it was facing a 96 percent reduction in its ability to handle those requests while the FBI dismantled its electronic FOIA portal for about three weeks, according to Gunita Singh, a legal fellow with the Reporters Committee.
“Federal agencies have taken great liberties over the last 12 months in processing federal FOIA requests,” Singh explained during a virtual forum hosted this week by The Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. City Limits moderated the online event.
A year into the pandemic, modifications to public records laws remain in place in at least 26 states, according to Singh. In New York, city and state agencies like the NYPD, the city Comptroller’s Office and the MTA continue to warn of delays in processing received FOIL requests.
“FOIL has become effectively useless,” said Nolan Hicks, a reporter who covers city agencies and politics for the New York Post. “I’ve got FOILs that I filed two years before the pandemic that are now being delayed because of the pandemic.”
Josefa Velazquez, a reporter covering Albany for the news site THE CITY, said it’s common for state agencies to indefinitely extend their deadlines for responding to records request, citing the impact of COVID-19.
“Anyone who covers the Cuomo administration or has filed a FOIL request with the Cuomo administration, that request you will not get back this calendar year or maybe even next calendar year,” she said. “The bar is in the basement. It is underground, below the subway.”
Watch the video below to hear the full conversation, including experts’ tips on how to navigate FOIA/FOIL delays and denials, what information is still publicly accessible under privacy laws like HIPAA and how government transparency could be improved.
Other panelists included Al-Amyn Sumar, counsel at The New York Times, WNYC politics reporter Brigid Bergin and Streetsblog NYC editor Gersh Kuntzman.