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Media lawyers nationwide are hailing recent amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, saying the new law will help end government secrecy by providing quicker and greater access to government information. Perhaps the most crucial provision of the new law, lawyers maintain, is that it requires federal agencies to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days, ending the problem of reporters waiting for months, sometimes years, to get FOIA requests honored. Agencies that fail to meet the 20-day deadline can no longer collect fees for searching their records, nor charge media outlets duplication fees. The new law, called the OPEN Government Act of 2007, was signed by President Bush on December 31. It goes into effect in one year. “Typically, requests that should take weeks under the law do not get results for months, or even years. And the individual government agencies suffer little or no consequences for their poor performance,” said Amy B. Ginesky, of Philadelphia’s Pepper Hamilton, a lawyer for media outlets who believes FOIA changes were badly needed. “The amendments have some teeth; whether they are strong enough to have any bite, and change past conduct, waits to be seen.” The new FOIA amendments — the first since 1996 — do several new things, including: • require that government details reasons for redacting information, where as before, lawyers say, agencies often redacted information without giving a clue. • allow FOIA requesters to recover attorney fees if they had to resort to litigation to obtain documents. • expand the definition of “news media” to include bloggers and freelance journalists. • create a “tracking system” so FOIA requesters can track individual requests using a unique tracking number. “As a lawyer who represents news media clients, as well as individuals using FOIA laws, this is a very welcome change to the statute,” said Paul Watler, a partner at Dallas-based Jackson Walker who counsels the media on First Amendment matters and media law. “You do hear stories — and this is unfortunately all too typical — of people who wage years long battles to dig information out of FBI files from 40 years ago.” Hopefully, the new FOIA will incentivize the government to act a lot quicker now, Watler added. “The lesson from this is that the law has been too complex and too burdensome for all but the most persistent individuals to use,” said Watler, past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “This has more teeth to it.” Maybe for some, but criminal defense attorney Bernard V. Kleinman, who has made FOIA requests while representing defendants in terrorism cases, doubts the amendments will help him much. Kleinman, a solo practitioner in White Plains, N.Y., said that too often, the government cites national security concerns as reasons for denying a FOIA request, and judges usually side with the government. “Many federal judges have been loathe to release information, even under seal, where the government has claimed national security,” Kleinman said. “Honestly, this is more of a bureaucratic issue … so I do not anticipate any great change here.”

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