University scholars work to access government information, enrich public understanding

Data are a critical part of evaluation. Without the right information, it’s difficult or even impossible to assess an issue — making it challenging to understand its impact and, if harmful, suggest solutions.

Thankfully, many scholars are working to make it easier to get access to government information by using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to ensure openness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University submitted a FOIA request to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asking about policies that restrict CDC employees’ ability to speak to the press and public, including about COVID-19. The CDC refused the request and, on April 2, the Knight Institute filed a lawsuit that, if successful, would require the CDC to release information about its policies.

“In the midst of this deadly pandemic, we need to be confident that we are receiving information based on the CDC’s expertise,” Knight Institute Legal Fellow Stephanie Krent said. “If the CDC has been sidelined, the public needs to know.”

Click here to learn more about the suit.

Prior to COVID-19-related shutdowns and also using FOIA, Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration Project had assembled data about immigrants awaiting court hearings. TRAC found that, as of the end of February 2020, more than 1.2 million cases were pending on courts’ active dockets, up from 542,411 cases in early 2017.

The analysis was possible because of a yearlong effort by TRAC to convince the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to release information. TRAC warns, “With most non-detained court hearings canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the backlog is slated to grow even higher.” The public deserves to know how high these numbers are climbing.

Access to information empowers researchers to help Americans close gaps in knowledge and protect public health. The Charles Koch Foundation is proud to support these institutions’ and their quest for transparency and truth.

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