The Justice Department has issued terse guidelines that critics say could dry up "public interest" requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Issued to all government departments and agencies Friday by Assistant Attorney General Jonathan C. Rose, the new policy explicitly supplants Carter administration standards that called for "a generous fee-waiver practice" in releasing government documents under the law.
Rose's three-page memo makes no mention of generosity, and says instead "that federal agencies are obligated to safeguard the public treasury" in administering the FOIA.
The guidelines also replace a Carter administration rule of thumb making indigency a proper and, in some agencies, almost automatic basis for waiving search and duplication fees, especially when the indigent has "a personal need" for the records in question.
"An interest which is personal to the requester is insufficient," the Rose memo states, "nor is it in the public interest to grant a waiver solely on the basis of a requester's indigency."
A note last fall from the Office of Management and Budget to White House counselor Edwin Meese III presaged the guidelines. It informed Meese that a review at the Justice Department was expected "to produce a policy that strictly and narrowly interprets" the fee-waiver section of the FOIA.
At a briefing yesterday, Rose said he had not been aware of the OMB memo and would not accept its characterization of what he had wrought. He described the new guidelines as "clear, fair and unexceptional," and maintained that they were little more than a clarification of the Carter Justice Department's 27-page instructions about fee waivers.
Under the law, documents to be made public "shall be furnished without charge or at reduced charge where the agency determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public."
Congress enacted the provision on fees in 1974 after hearings concluded that requests for records under the eight-year-old law had been repeatedly frustrated at many agencies by demands for exorbitant fees.
On Jan. 5, 1981, then-attorney general Benjamin C. Civiletti found that government agencies were still rejecting fee waivers too often and that this was thwarting the law.
Rose's memo "supersedes" that guidance and lays down some criteria for assessing fee-waiver requests.
"An agency must determine whether there is a genuine public interest in the subject matter"--as distinct from the interests of the applicant alone, the guidelines say. And no matter "how interesting or vital" the subject, the information to be released should be considered beneficial to the public only if it "meaningfully contributes to the public development or understanding of the subject."
The memo also recommends denial of fee waivers when the information is already in the public domain, and suggests that those requesting information be required routinely to describe "their qualifications, the nature of their research and the purposes for which they intend to use the requested materials." The old guidelines, by contrast, said that "such facts may and sometimes should be considered."
"Specialized knowledge is often required to extract and effectively convey information to the public," the Rose guidelines state.
Rose said he realized that the memo would be described by some as "some great effort to shoot down the FOIA," but, he said, "it's not."