Government Accountability

SCHUSTER INSTITUTE VISITING RESEARCH SCHOLAR NINA GILDEN SEAVEY'S BIG WIN

A federal judge ruled May 16 that the FBI must provide copies of its records of government surveillance of citizens from the 1960s and 1970s at no charge to a documentary filmmaker who filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015 after being stonewalled for two years. 

Also at issue was the timely release of documents. The FBI offered Nina Gilden Seavey 500 released pages per month. With the anticipated number of pages resulting from her requests, Seavey calculated that it would take 60 years under the FBI’s proposed release schedule to get all the documents. The judge gave the FBI until May 31 to report back on an estimated schedule for releasing documents to Seavey. 

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in Seavey v. Department of Justice that the FBI must provide a full fee waiver for the duplication costs of hundreds of thousands of documents Seavey requested and that the FBI must provide under FOIA.

Seavey is in production on an investigative documentary about government surveillance of U.S. citizens engaged in anti-war and civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s in St. Louis, Missouri. “My Fugitive” tells the story through the lens of Howard Mechanic, a student protester arrested in 1970 after an ROTC building was burned down at Washington University in St. Louis. Seavey’s father, Louis Gilden, became Mechanic’s attorney in the resulting case. According to Seavey, she began exploring the subject almost 30 years ago and has uncovered information about FBI, CIA and military intelligence surveillance programs as well as new information about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In her decision, Kessler wrote that at “this present difficult time in our country's history, it is important as never before, that the American public be as educated as possible as to what ‘our Government is up to.’” She cited the 1989 FOIA case involving the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which said, “The basic purpose of the Freedom of lnformation Act [is] to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny” thereby furthering “the citizens’ right to be informed about ‘what their government is up to.’”

Weighing in on the Seavey case, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the decision a “great win.” 

What Judge Kessler’s statement “crystallizes is that FOIA is a really powerful tool for the public in these circumstances,” said Adam Marshall, Knight Litigation Attorney at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The basic goal of FOIA is to promote an informed democracy. And so I think this really hits that on the head.” 

Marshall said, “FOIA exists for the benefit of the public,” to show “what is going on inside government — what the government is doing or what it’s not doing in periods of political and cultural and societal strife, whether it’s in the 1970s or whether it’s today.” 


Nina Gilden Seavey

Nina Gilden Seavey is a Research Professor of History and of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. She is also director of The Documentary Center at the university. She has been appointed as a Visiting Research Scholar with The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University for 2017-18.


Had Seavey, an Emmy-award winning independent documentary filmmaker with 30 years’ experience, been forced to pay the fees for this massive document request, the cost would have been prohibitive, preventing her from completing the project and unveiling this chapter in U.S. history that continues to be obscured.

“Given the current turbulence in our political environment and the ever-increasing concern about government surveillance and the use of information against America’s own citizens for political purposes, there is no more important time for the press, and specifically long-form documentarians, to investigate and present compelling stories to the public about the protection of our innate First Amendment Rights in a democracy,” Seavey said. “Judge Kessler’s broad opinion, which will inevitably be used in future cases petitioning the government for release of documents, is a bold step in assuring the public’s right to know.”

Marshall hopes that other government agencies “take note that this is how FOIA is supposed to work.” 

“When you have people who really are working for the public, that’s exactly what FOIA’s designed to do, and those people should be getting fee waivers,” he said, adding that the purpose of FOIA’s fee waiver provision is to recognize that “the work that reporters do is really on behalf of the public, and that’s worth the cost that the government incurs in processing these requests.”

Many groups advocating for transparency and open government agree that processing delays and prohibitive fees are common and significant challenges for FOIA requesters. 

“While (the 1966 Freedom of Information Act) established an important principle, there is wide agreement the FOIA’s administrative process has many flaws, with federal agencies frequently resisting its mandates by either refusing to provide properly requested records or ignoring the requirements that the documents be made available within specified time periods,” The FOIA Project states on its website.