11th Circuit orders release of FEMA records
Editor's note: On Aug. 9, the Associated Press reported that the federal
government had agreed to release public records on disaster-grant payments to
the four Florida newspapers that had sued for release of the data. FEMA
officials said the agency would release the data beginning Aug. 17.
ATLANTA — The Federal Emergency Management Agency must give the addresses of
1.3 million disaster-aid recipients to news organizations in Florida, the 11th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late last week.
The three-judge panel ruled that disclosing the addresses would not be an
unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, but names are exempt because there
would be only minimal additional public interest in disclosing them.
FEMA had sought to withhold the information for almost three years.
The News-Press of Fort Myers, Pensacola News Journal and
Florida Today, all owned by Gannett Inc., had sued after FEMA refused to
disclose the names and addresses under the Freedom of Information Act. The
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, meanwhile, had sought the addresses as part
of its reports on fraud and mismanagement in the federal agency’s disaster
program after a Labor Day weekend hurricane lashed the state in 2004.
A federal judge ruled in the Gannett case that FEMA could withhold both the
names and addresses of aid recipients. A different federal judge, however, ruled
in the Sun-Sentinel case that the agency must disclose the addresses but
not the names.
The two cases were consolidated before the 11th Circuit.
The three-judge appeals panel said disclosure of the addresses would shed
light “on whether FEMA has been a good steward of billions of taxpayer dollars
in the wake of several natural disasters across the county, and we cannot find
any privacy interests here that even begin to outweigh this public
Attorneys representing the Associated Press, E.W. Scripps Co., Media General
Corp. and the Tribune Co. filed a brief last year, urging the appeals court to
order the release of the names and addresses.
In the 66-page ruling in News-Press v.
Homeland Security, Judge Stanley Marcus wrote, “The public interest in
evaluating the appropriateness of FEMA’s response to disasters is not only
precisely the kind of public interest that meets the FOIA’s core purpose by
shedding light on what the government is up to; the magnitude of this public
interest is potentially enormous.”
Sun-Sentinel attorney Rachel E. Fugate praised the appeals court’s
decision. “This isn’t only a huge victory for the Sun-Sentinel but for
all media and especially the public, which hopefully will be even better
informed now,” she said, as quoted in a June 23 Sun-Sentinel story.
Kate Marymont, the News-Press executive editor, also hailed the
ruling. “The court spoke so clearly and passionately that it would be difficult
to be more eloquent about the government’s obligation and the public’s interest
in this case,” she said in a June 22 News-Press story. “Once we receive
the addresses, our readers can look forward to a detailed analysis of how FEMA
dispersed hurricane aid.”
The consolidated appeals rose out of a storm season in which Hurricanes
Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne hit Florida within a six-week period in