The cause of government transparency finally broke through to the popular zeitgeist this year. It wasn't an investigative journalism exposé or a civil rights lawsuit that did it, but a light-hearted sitcom about a Taiwanese American family set in Orlando, Florida, in the late 1990s.
In a January episode of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family's two youngest children – overachievers Evan and Emery – decide if they sprint on all their homework, they'll have time to plan their father's birthday party.
"Like the time we knocked out two English papers, a science experiment, and built the White House out of sugar cubes," Evan said. "It opened up our Sunday for filing Freedom of Information requests."
"They may not have figured out who shot JFK," Emery added. "But we will."
The eldest child, teenage slacker Eddie, concluded with a sage nod, "You know, once in a while, it's good to know nerds."
Amen to that. Around the world, nerds of all ages are using laws like the United States' Freedom of Information Act (and state-level equivalent laws) to pry free secrets and expose the inner workings of our democracy. Each year, open government advocates celebrate these heroes during Sunshine Week, an annual advocacy campaign on transparency.
But the journalists and researchers who rely on these important measures every day can't help but smirk at the boys' scripted innocence. Too often, government officials will devise novel and outrageous ways to reject requests for information or otherwise stymie the public's right to know. Even today – 20 years after the events set in the episode – the White House continues to withhold key documents from the Kennedy assassination files.
Since 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a nonprofit that advocates for free speech, privacy and government transparency in the digital age) has published The Foilies to recognize the bad actors who attempted to thwart the quests for truth of today's Evans and Emerys. With these tongue-in-cheek awards, we call out attempts to block transparency, retaliation against those who exercise their rights to information, and the most ridiculous examples of incompetence by government officials who handle these public records.
The Clawback Award: The Broward County School Board
After the tragic Parkland shooting, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel went to court to force the Broward County School Board to hand over documents detailing the shooter's education and disciplinary record. A judge agreed and ordered the release, as long as sensitive information was redacted.
But when reporters copied and pasted the file into another document, they found that the content under the redactions was still there and readable. They broke the story of how the school denied the shooter therapeutic services and alternative education accommodations, but then uploaded the school board's report with working redactions.
Rather than simply do better with double-checking their redactions next time, the school board struck back at the newspaper. They petitioned the court to hold the newspaper in contempt and to prevent anyone from reporting on the legally obtained information. Although the local judge didn't issue a fine, she lambasted the paper and threatened to dictate exactly what the paper could report about the case in the future (which is itself an unconstitutional prior restraint).