Just How Far Should the Freedom of Information Act Go?

Oct 15, 2019

Public money is often handed over in the form of grants. But, there’s a debate about how much of that process should be public information.

To get grant money from the government for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, companies have to fill out grant applications. Sometimes those applications are challenged. That’s a paper trail that’s led to questions about how much of all those documents should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey says the law needs to balance the need for transparency with the risk of exposing trade secrets.

“The right of businesses, even though they are looking for a public grant, to protect their critical business information," Kelsey explains. "And if you don’t have that, then you’re not going to have businesses applying for these grants, and what is the purpose at that point.”

A bill creating new exemptions sailed through the General Assembly earlier this year with zero opposition in the Senate, and only four no votes in the House.

One was Northern Virginia Democratic Delegate Danica Roem, a former journalist turned lawmaker who says she’s sick of seeing…

“Exemption after exemption after exemption after exemption to our Freedom of Information Act. That is not how the Freedom of Information Act was designed," Roem says. "That is not its intended purpose, and we need to make sure that the public has the most access to the most amount of information.”

Over the summer, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council issued an advisory opinion that materials submitted as part of a challenge to an application are not shielded from the public with an exemption.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.