@INFO.POLICY: 'Litigation Guide' to privacy laws isn't just for lawyers

Robert Gellman

A new edition of an existing book is rarely worth much discussion, but I am very pleased to see the return of the FOIA Litigation Guide. The book, Litigation Under the Federal Open Government Laws 2002, is the best one-volume guide to the Freedom of Information Act, Privacy Act of 1974, Government in the Sunshine Act and Federal Advisory Committee Act that I know of. The last edition was published in 1997.

Although the title suggests that the book is for lawyers, anyone involved in any way with these laws will find it an essential reference, especially for FOIA. The chapters explain the law, legislative history and court decisions for every aspect of FOIA. The litigation advice is excellent, but just a small piece of the package. Chapters on the other laws are not as detailed, but none of the others compares in complexity with the FOIA.

The Litigation Guide tells you what you need to know quickly and clearly. It is especially useful for agency people who dabble in FOIA only occasionally or for companies that submit documents to the government.

The book, which used to be published annually by the American Civil Liberties Union, is now published by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The principal editor of the new edition is Harry Hammitt, publisher of the FOIA newsletter Access Reports. Contributors to the book include many of the principal public-interest FOIA litigators, but the material is generally free from bias. You can order a copy of the book directly from Access Reports, www.accessreports.com or e-mail hhammitt@accessreports.com. The book costs $40 plus $5 postage. It is also available through the EPIC bookstore at www.epic.org.

Other FOIA guides are available. The Office of Information and Privacy at the Department of Justice publishes the Justice Department Guide to the Freedom of Information Act. Like the department itself, the guide is a bit pompous, hard to read, biased at times and prone to blow its own horn.

Justice also publishes a guide to the Privacy Act. The best feature of these guides is that they are available free online at www.usdoj.gov/oip/oip.html.

Worst of the lot is the Citizen's Guide on the FOIA and Privacy Act, published by the House Committee on Government Reform. The latest edition is House Report 107-371. You can access it through the Thomas Web site at thomas.loc.gov.

The House guide is OK up to a point, but it is five years out of date in part. Amazingly, the law reprinted in the back of the congressional guide still refers to changes from the 1996 Electronic FOIA amendments that 'will' take effect in 1997. It has been five years, and the committee still hasn't updated the text of the law.

You should know that I wrote earlier versions of the guide when I worked for the committee years ago. I can certainly recognize bad staff work when I see it. No one on the staff bothered to read what they were publishing. Neither should anyone else.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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