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FOIA Update: Reporters Committee Decided Broadly

FOIA Update
Vol. X, No. 2

Reporters Committee Decided Broadly

In a strikingly broad victory for the Government, the United States Supreme Court on March 22 issued a far-reaching Exemption 7(C) decision that greatly affects the protection of personal privacy under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Court unanimously ruled, in Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 109 S. Ct. 1468 (1989), that any criminal history record (known as a "rap sheet") maintained by the FBI on a certain individual alleged to have had connections with organized crime and a corrupt congressman is "categorically" exempt from disclosure under Exemption 7(C). Such compilations of raw arrest and conviction information have never been disclosed to the public by the FBI, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered disclosure under the FOIA in this case. (See FOIA Update, Fall 1988, at 1.)

In reversing that D.C. Circuit disclosure order, the Supreme Court resolved the confusion that existed under the D.C. Circuit's decisions about the process by which privacy interests are to be balanced against the "public interest" under the FOIA's two privacy exemptions. (See FOIA Update, Spring 1988, at 3-5.) The Supreme Court's decision sets forth several important FOIA principles, based upon the Act's underlying policy objectives, which clarify the law in this area and should significantly strengthen the protection of personal privacy interests under Exemption 6 as well as Exemption 7(C).

These new privacy-protection principles -- which include a narrowed concept of "public interest" under the Act -- have the combined effect of altering the basic "public interest" balancing process required to be employed in all Exemption 6 and Exemption 7(C) decisionmaking.

This issue of FOIA Update contains a four-page analysis of the Reporters Committee decision and its immediate ramifications (see pp. 3-6), as well as a step-by-step guide to the Exemption 6/Exemption 7(C) decisionmaking process (see p. 7).

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Updated August 13, 2014