Urges Court to follow the text and strike a wise balance when examining Exemption 4 within the Freedom of Information Act

Today, Cause of Action Institute, a nationally recognized government watchdog organization with a specialty in government transparency, led an ideologically diverse coalition in filing an amicus brief involving Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a statute the Court rarely interprets. The brief, filed before the U.S. Supreme Court, urges the Court to improve and clarify how Exemption 4 is applied. This particular exemption protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [that is] privileged or confidential.”

The case has the potential to upset the status quo and drastically expand the use of this exemption – meaning more information that was otherwise public could now be withheld from disclosure. The coalition’s amicus brief urges the Court to strike a sound balance by clarifying and improving the competitive-harm test, eliminating the Critical Mass distinction, confirming an objective test for determining confidential information, and ensuring Exemption 4 takes into account some reputational harms that could occur if confidential information is disclosed.

James Valvo, counsel and senior policy advisor for Cause of Action issued the following statement:

“It’s rare to see the Supreme Court take a FOIA case, and far more rare that the case deals with the specifics of Exemption 4. But good government is government that is transparent and open. This is perhaps why it is so critical that the Court uses this opportunity to clarify how Exemption 4 is applied, to ensure the public’s right to information is protected while not harming legitimate commercial concerns. The existing standards to determine what information falls within or out of the scope of Exemption 4 has created a confusing web that does a disservice to spirit of the FOIA.”

In addition to Cause of Action Institute, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, FOIA Advisor, Open the Government, and the Project on Government Oversight signed the amicus brief.

The amicus brief specifically asks the Court to:

  • Address and interpret the term “confidential,” as used under Exemption 4, to bring it into harmony with the statutory text and its historical usage in other legal contexts and confirm an objective test for determining the confidentiality of commercial or financial information;
  • Eliminate the National Parks standard that the impairment of the government’s ability to collect information is a justification for withholding information as unnecessary and duplicative;
  • Eliminate the atextual distinction created in Critical Mass between information that is obtained through voluntary or compulsory means; and
  • Ensure Exemption 4 protects against certain types of reputational harm that have a negative impact on competitive standing.

Summary:

All records subject to the FOIA should be disclosed to the public unless the federal government cites one of nine exemptions. This case specially deals with Exemption 4, which concerns, “Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.”

FOIA Exemption 4, exempts from disclosure “confidential” commercial or financial information that the government obtains from a person. But the FOIA does not define “confidential.” The meaning of that term cannot be derived from bare dictionary definitions. “Confidential” instead must be understood in light of its historical usage in other legal contexts and in the FOIA. Persuasive canons of statutory interpretation counsel the Court to take that approach. Petitioner’s overbroad understanding of “confidential” ignores legal history, deviates from the interpretative methodology accepted for other terms in Exemption 4, and would render the whole of Exemption 4 surplusage by swallowing up the independent meanings of “trade secret” and “privileged.”

The proper meaning of “confidential” covers information that, if made public, would cause competitive harm to its source. This meaning is rooted in the common law and the nature of confidential relationships. But history is not the only basis for this understanding. In other legal contexts, construing the phrase “confidential information” frequently involves some form of harm analysis. From judicial records and the Bankruptcy Code, to the Rules of Civil Procedure and this Court’s precedents on FOIA Exemptions 5 and 7, legal context demonstrates the inadequacy of Petitioner’s dictionary-bound approach to Exemption 4.

This case also presents the Court with an opportunity to clarify other aspects of Exemption 4. Although amici ask the Court to uphold the competitive-harm justification of National Parks, they also ask the Court to eliminate the government-impairment justification, abandon the distinction between information submitted voluntarily or under compulsion, reiterate that competitive harm is analyzed under an objective test, and accept reputational harms that impact competitive standing as cognizable under Exemption 4.

As the Court considers this case, it should do so consistent with its precedent for interpreting the FOIA. The Court has recognized that the FOIA is essential to “ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society,” and that it contains a “strong presumption in favor of disclosure. To ensure that citizens have access to information and to honor the strong presumption of disclosure, FOIA exemptions “must be ‘narrowly construed.”

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Media ContactMatt Frendewey, matt.frendewey@causeofaction.org | 202-699-2018