A recent Supreme Court ruling expressly limits the media and public’s access to specific government records. The Supreme Court decided to expand on an existing federal law definition of what falls under the terms of confidentiality. During the ruling, the important issue being analyzed was an aspect of confidentiality under the Freedom of Information Act. Part of the Freedom of Information Act mentions items that should be kept secret or may cause harm if it becomes public. The Supreme Court took this part of the Freedom of Information Act and reexamined its definition, broadening its terms. In a 6-3 decision, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch explained the Supreme Court’s ruling (Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media 2020).
The Food Marketing Institute, who is a retailer trade group, asked the federal government to create a broader definition that would allow certain data to be kept secret from the public and the media. However, media organizations and those acting for the public interest wanted to see a narrower definition about harm applied, meaning confidentiality would exist for less FOIA requests (Ellis & Wolf, 2019). The original case started in 2011 when Argus Leader, a Sioux Falls, S.D. newspaper and media group that acts for the USA Today Network of news asked that the Department of Agriculture let the taxpayers know about the money that is paid to the 320,000 food retailers that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Program. The newsroom wanted access to data about other programs as well, like food stamps. However, the Supreme Court rejected this request and went against Argus Leader, even reversing a lower court’s ruling while doing so. According to the Supreme Court, releasing that information could cause harm to the public. “At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is ‘confidential’ under the meaning of (FOIA),” Gorsuch wrote (Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media 2020).
Argus Leader fought for years to try and obtain this information and release it to the public. As a news network, Argus Leader states that it was simply trying to get important information out to the public. Argus Leader’s representatives stated that they felt the public should know how its tax dollars are being spent on these food programs so that people can see who is really benefitting—those receiving food through the government, or the food companies that are being supported by the government’s money to do so. Argus Leader expresses a fear that the food programs may not be up to par, or may be pocketing money before ensuring that the people dependent on the governmental assistance programs for food are correctly fed (Ellis & Wolf, 2019).
The decision affects Argus Leader’s ability to publicize the matter publicly through its news network. As Argus Leader insists they are simply trying to find the facts and disclose them to the public as a news agency, it appears that they won’t be able to obtain the information they seek to inform the public about currently. So, Argus Leader states that it will continue to fight about the cause. However, Argus Leader’s ability to continue writing and bringing attention to this issue for the public is unfortunately curbed. So, Argus Leader plans on seeking other avenues, if possible, to get the information released to the public. However, while Argus Leader plans to continue to shed light on this issue, the company also recognizes that the government has decided to shield its records recording taxpayer payments to particular food stamp retailers. Unfortunately, this ruling means there were probably be more secrecy and less information released to the public. While Argus Leader plans to continue to mention this issue, it will not be able to obtain all of the records regarding the issue because of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
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Ellis, J., & Wolf, R. (2019, June 24). Supreme Court limits access to government records in loss for Argus Leader, part of the USA TODAY Network. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/06/24/freedom-information-act-supreme-court-rules-south-dakota-case/1475089001.
Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. Ballotpedia. (2020). https://ballotpedia.org/Food_Marketing_Institute_v._Argus_Leader_Media.