WHY CARE ABOUT FOIA? | Sara Christiansen

Cue the George Michael music!

I can’t help it. Whenever I hear someone talk about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, for short), I hear a full chorus of voices in my head singing, “Freedom! Freedom! You’ve got to give what you take!”

And why not? Freedom is something to sing about, fight for, and celebrate. Throughout history, those who fought for freedom knew it was a sacred gift worth fighting for. Our forefathers battled disease, starvation, and Redcoats to pursue religious freedom for our nation. Abolitionists battled prejudice, bloodshed, and Confederates to secure personal freedom for slaves. Suffragettes battled ridicule, oppression, and men to obtain voting freedom for women. And today, journalists everywhere are battling red-tape, bureaucracy, and the government to secure informational freedom for the general public.

So what’s the big deal? Is the quest to obtain information really a battle worth fighting for?

Just ask Californians suffering from 15-year drought conditions. Residents face fines up to $500 a violation for watering yards on the wrong day or washing cars with non-nozzled hoses. Restaurants no longer serve water, unless specifically requested, and spraying sidewalks or driveways is strictly prohibited.

Imagine living this way for 15-years then learning that this same government restricting your water usage is allowing water stored in federal reservoirs – funneled from local aquifers – to be used to water cotton crops, funded by federal subsidies as part of the U.S. Farm Bill. It took nearly three years for reporters Abrahm Lustgarten and Naveena Sadasivam of ProPublica to retrieve information from various government agencies about this water distribution scandal, following numerous FOIA submissions. What they received was incomplete, at best. In their article, “Holy Crop”, the pair revealed that:

Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.

In order for cotton to grow in the Sonoran desert, billions of gallons of water must be provided for the crops to produce. Water that used to be utilized by the general public is now being diverted to cultivate crops, as directed and funded by the U.S. government. The Farm Bill has provided over $130 billion to farmers over the past ten years – even if their crops fail. Simply stated, wasting water to grow cotton in the desert won’t likely even produce a bountiful harvest – yet that doesn’t even matter. Growers receive federal monies even if their crops fail, for virtually any reason.

Why Care About FOIA
(Photo: ProPublica)

As an added incentive, farmers are given $40,000 just for attempting to grow any number of federally determined commodities – and reimbursed up to 90% of their losses if these commodities fail to produce. Given the unpredictable nature of weather, what farmer wouldn’t want to plant at least a portion of his fields with commodity crops?

The public has a right to know. That’s one of our basic tenets as journalists. The public has a right to know; and we, journalists, have a responsibility to find out what our government isn’t telling the public. Determined, stalwart, resolute submissions may be the only way to get information from the government. Since the FOIA was passed in 1967, we have the means to do so. It may take time, attention, and persistence but we must continue to press on with our investigations.

As George Michael said, “Freedom, I won’t let you down, freedom, I will not give you up, freedom… You got to give what you take.” Check back for this series on FOIA, featured the first Friday of every month, to be reminded of just how important our freedom really is – and what we, journalists, can do to secure free informational flow to the general public.