Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic sued the Environmental Protection Agency last month over access to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s daily schedule. The team — led by attorneys John Langford LAW ’14 and Charles Sims LAW ’76 and assisted by the clinic’s student directors, Allison Douglis LAW ’18 and Delbert Tran LAW ’18 — represents Eric Lipton, a reporter at The New York Times, and the Times itself.
“The public has the right to know who the EPA administrator is meeting with,” Lipton told the News. “It is important for The New York Times … as we attempt to get a better understanding of factors that contribute to decisions he is making — decisions that might impact the nation’s air and water.”
Lipton is seeking Pruitt’s calendar as part of a larger effort to increase transparency between the public and top government officials. In a previously released daily schedule, Pruitt was shown meeting with industry executives at Ford, General Motors, Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz and other large corporations, which bolstered claims that he favors industry over environmental protection.
After receiving no response following their July 12 request for the documents, Lipton and the Times revised and resubmitted the request in October. When the EPA again did not respond, the paper decided to take the matter to court.
“After more than three decades of openness, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided not to produce these records,” Tran said. “Such records are essential to allowing the public to ensure that its government is acting on behalf of the public when making critical decisions that would affect the health and safety of American citizens.”
The EPA has not responded to a request for comment on the case.
The plaintiffs are arguing that the EPA’s actions violate a 2016 amendment to the Freedom of Information Act. Under the amended act, any government materials of public interest that are requested on three separate occasions are must be made publicly available, a rule clinic head David Schulz dubbed “the Rule of Three.”
Schulz explained that the case could have major implications on the legal definition of the word “record.” While the word traditionally refers to historical documents, the team is arguing that it should be applied more generally to all documents of public interest, including materials that are created on an ongoing basis, such as calendars.
“As these meetings continue, so too does the public interest in obtaining timely, complete, and accurate information about Administrator Pruitt’s schedule,” reads the complaint, which was filed in the District of Columbia. “This [complaint] seeks to vindicate that interest.”
If Lipton and the Times prevail, it could lead to added pressure on government officials to proactively release materials of public interest.
“[The case] starts with the idea that public business is the public’s business,” Schulz added.
The student-run Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic is focused on the First Amendment and supporting reporters and members of the media in fighting for increased government transparency. Some of the clinic’s other recent cases include a Snowden-related victory seeking to prevent secret court proceedings and a suit against the Department of Homeland Security regarding access to secret service records during the 2016 presidential election.
The EPA has until Feb. 2 to respond. If the agency does not settle, both parties are expected to cross motion for summary judgement. Both Schulz and Langford said they are confident that if the case is litigated, they will prevail, and Pruitt will have to release his calendar.
The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic was founded in 2009.
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