Cameranesi v. DOD, 856 F.3d 626 (9th Cir. 2017) (Ikuta, J.)
Re: Request for records concerning "names, ranks, branches, countries of origin, lists of courses taken or taught, and/or dates and years in attendance of students, instructors, and guest instructors," as well "the military units" of students and instructors at DOD's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation ("WHINSEC")
Disposition: Reversing and remanding district court's grant of requester's motion for summary judgment
- Exemption 6: The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit holds that "[b]ecause disclosing the names of WHINSEC students and instructors would give rise to a 'clearly unwarranted' invasion of privacy, those names are therefore exempt from disclosure under Exemption 6 of FOIA." Regarding the privacy interests at issue, the court first notes that, when considering this question, "the district court applied the wrong legal standard; it should have considered whether nontrivial privacy interests, rather than substantial privacy interests, were at stake." The court then finds that, "[h]ere, the evidence submitted by the DOD demonstrated that disclosure of the identities of foreign WHINSEC students and instructors would give rise to possible harassment, stigma, or violence as a result of their association with the United States – exactly the sorts of risks that courts have recognized as nontrivial in previous cases." The court also rejects "[the requesters'] argu[ment] that the evidence of risks faced by the WHINSEC students and instructors should be disregarded as overly speculative" because "[the court] [has] never held that an agency must document that harassment or mistreatment have happened in the past or will certainly happen in the future; rather, the agency must merely establish that disclosure would result in a 'potential for harassment.'" Regarding the public interests at issue, addressing the requesters' arguments, the court finds that "[a]lthough [it] agree[s] there is a public interest in identifying government impropriety in performing its statutory duties, allegations of two errors among the thousands of students that trained at WHINSEC from 2001 through 2004 does not amount to a 'meaningful evidentiary showing' that would lead to 'a belief by a reasonable person that the alleged Government impropriety might have occurred.'" Additionally, "the relationship between WHINSEC's obligation to provide human rights training to WHINSEC students and the subsequent conduct of foreign law enforcement or military personnel, perhaps years after their training at WHINSEC, is tenuous at best." "Because any incremental value stemming from the disclosure of the identities of WHINSEC students and instructors is small, the public interest in this case does not outweigh the serious risks that would result from disclosure." "[The court] therefore conclude[s] that disclosure would give rise to a 'clearly unwarranted' invasion of privacy and that the information requested by plaintiffs is exempt from disclosure under Exemption 6 of FOIA."
Judge Watford, dissenting, stated that "on the thin evidentiary record presented here, the Department of Defense did not carry its burden of demonstrating that the students' and instructors' privacy interests outweigh the strong public interest in disclosure of their names." Judge Watford believes that "disclosing the names of the Institute's foreign students and instructors would also shed light on how well the Departments of Defense and State are performing their statutory duties." Specifically, "it is precisely because of the problems that plagued the Institute's predecessor that the public has such a strong interest in determining whether or not the reforms implemented to correct those problems have been effective." Judge Watford thus believes that "[t]he public interest in knowing which foreign students our government chooses to train militarily and what comes of that training is much stronger than any public interest that might exist in the disclosure of the identities of U.S. military personnel."