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On this week's multicolored-light-strewn weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World again puts on MAGA-vision; Jen Sorensen ponders all the retro trends; (Th)ink looks inside the mind of Mr. Zuckerberg; Red Meat needs to revise a history paper; and Apoca Clips posits that Rudy's goose may be cooked.

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On this week's cornbread-stuffing-filled weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World wonders what the deal is with all this impeachment stuff; Jen Sorensen looks at Facebook going all the way to 1984; The K Chronicles isn't very impressed by Hollywood; Red Meat suffers the consequences of some unwise diet choices; and Apoca Clips "learns" something at a convention.

Published in Comics

Every year, Project Censored scours the landscape for the most important stories that the mainstream corporate media somehow missed—and every year, the task seems to get a bit stranger. Or “curiouser and curiouser,” as suggested in the subtitle of this year’s volume of their work, Censored 2020: Through The Looking Glass, which includes their full list of the top 25 censored stories—and much, much more about the never-ending struggle to bring vitally important hidden truths to light.

In the foreword, “Down the Rabbit Hole of ‘Media Literacy’ by Decree,” Sharyl Attkisson, an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, highlights the absurdity of “so many well-organized, well-funded efforts to root out so-called ‘fake news,’” which—as we’ll see below—have significantly impacted the kinds of journalists and outlets who have historically produced the stories that make Project Censored’s list in the first place.

“The self-appointed curators, often wielding proprietary algorithms, summarily dispense with facts and ideas that they determine to be false—or maybe just dangerous to their agendas,” Attkisson notes. “Thanks to them, we will hardly have to do any of our own thinking. They’ll take care of it for us.”

In the beginning, Project Censored’s founder, Carl Jensen, was partly motivated by the way in which the early reporting on the Watergate scandal never crossed over from being a crime story to a political story—until after the 1972 election coverage. It wasn’t censorship in the classic sense, but it was an example of something even more insidious, because no clear-cut act of censorship or all-powerful censor was needed to produce the same result of a public left in the dark. Jensen defined censorship as “the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship—that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society.” The most obvious way to start fighting it was to highlight the suppressed information in the form of the stories that didn’t get widely told. Thus, Project Censored and its annual list of censored stories was born.

1. Justice Department’s Secret FISA Rules for Targeting Journalists

The federal government can secretly monitor American journalists under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows invasive spying and operates outside the traditional court system, according two 2015 memos from then-Attorney General Eric Holder.

The memos were obtained by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation through an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which was reported on by The Intercept, whose parent company provides funding for both organizations. However, the memos were virtually ignored by the corporate media.

The secret rules “apply to media entities or journalists who are thought to be agents of a foreign government, or, in some cases, are of interest under the broader standard that they possess foreign intelligence information,” The Intercept reported.

Project Censored cited three “concerning” questions the memos raise. First: How many times have FISA court orders been used to target journalists, and are any currently under investigation? Second: Why did the Justice Department keep these rules secret when it updated its “media guidelines” in 2015? And, third: Is the Justice Department using FISA court orders—along with the FBI’s similar rules for targeting journalists with National Security Letters (NSLs)—to “get around the stricter ‘media guidelines’”?

The corporate media virtually ignored these revelations when they occurred. The subsequent media interest in FISA warrants targeting Trump campaign adviser Carter Page “has done nothing at all to raise awareness of the threats posed by FISA warrants that target journalists and news organizations,” Project Censored observed.

Project Censored ended with a quote from Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney with the Knight Institute, summarizing the stakes: “National security surveillance authorities confer extraordinary powers. The government’s failure to share more information about them damages journalists’ ability to protect their sources, and jeopardizes the news gathering process.”

2. Think Tank Partnerships Establish Facebook as a Tool of U.S. Foreign Policy

In the name of fighting “fake news” to protect American democracy from “foreign influences,” Facebook formed a set of partnerships with three expert foreign influencers in 2018, augmenting its bias toward censorship of left/progressive voices.

In May 2018, Facebook announced its partnership with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored Washington, D.C., think tank to “monitor for misinformation and foreign interference.”

“It’s funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force, along with NATO, various foreign powers and major Western corporations, including weapons contractors and oil companies, (including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell),” noted Adam Johnson, writing for the media watch group FAIR.

FAIR went on to note that the major news outlets covering the story said nothing about any of the above conflicts of interest.

In September, Facebook announced it would also partner with two Cold War-era U.S. government-funded propaganda organizations: the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

In October 2018, Jonathan Sigrist, writing for Global Research, described one of the greatest Facebook account and page purges in its troubled history: “559 pages and 251 personal accounts were instantly removed from the platform. … This is but one of similar yet smaller purges that have been unfolding in front of our eyes over the last year, all in the name of fighting ‘fake news’ and so called ‘Russian propaganda.’”

3. Indigenous Groups From the Amazon Propose Creation of Largest Protected Area on Earth

When news of unprecedented wildfires in the Amazon grabbed headlines in late August, most Americans were ill-prepared to understand the story, in part because of systemic exclusion of indigenous voices and viewpoints, as highlighted in Project Censored’s No. 3 story—the proposed creation of an Amazonian protected zone the size of Mexico, presented to the UN Conference on Biodiversity in November 2018.

The proposal, which Jonathan Watts, writing for The Guardian, described as “a 200m-hectare sanctuary for people, wildlife and climate stability that would stretch across borders from the Andes to the Atlantic,” was advanced by an alliance of some 500 indigenous groups from nine countries, known as COICA—the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, who called it “a sacred corridor of life and culture.”

“We have come from the forest and we worry about what is happening,” declared Tuntiak Katan, vice president of COICA, as quoted in The Guardian. “This space is the world’s last great sanctuary for biodiversity. It is there because we are there. Other places have been destroyed.”

The Guardian went on to note: “The organization does not recognize national boundaries, which were put in place by colonial settlers and their descendants without the consent of indigenous people who have lived in the Amazon for millennia. Katan said the group was willing to talk to anyone who was ready to protect not just biodiversity but the territorial rights of forest communities.”

In contrast, The Guardian explained: “Colombia previously outlined a similar triple-A (Andes, Amazon and Atlantic) protection project that it planned to put forward with the support of Ecuador at next month’s climate talks. But the election of new rightwing leaders in Colombia and Brazil has thrown into doubt what would have been a major contribution by South American nations to reduce emissions.”

4. U.S. Oil and Gas Industry Set to Unleash 120 Billion Tons of New Carbon Emissions

Three months after the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change, Oil Change International released a report that went virtually ignored, warning that the United States was headed in the wrong direction.

The report, Drilling Towards Disaster, warned that rather than cutting down carbon emissions, as required to avert catastrophe, the United States under Donald Trump was dramatically increasing fossil fuel production, with the United States on target to account for 60 percent of increased carbon emissions worldwide by 2030—expanding extraction at least four times more than any other country.

References to the report “have been limited to independent media outlets,” Project Censored noted: “Corporate news outlets have not reported on the report’s release or its findings, including its prediction of 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution or its five-point checklist to overhaul fossil fuel production in the US.”

5. Modern Slavery in the United States and Around the World

An estimated 403,000 people in the United States were living in conditions of “modern slavery” in 2016, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, or GSI—about 1 percent of the global total. The GSI defines “modern slavery” broadly to include forced labor and forced marriage.

Because forced marriage accounts for 15 million people, more than a third of the global total, it’s not surprising that females form a majority of the victims (71 percent). The highest levels were found in North Korea, where an estimated 2.6 million people—10 percent of the population—are victims of modern slavery.

The GSI is produced by the Walk Free Foundation, whose founder, Andrew Forrest, called the U.S. figure, “a truly staggering statistic, (which) is only possible through a tolerance of exploitation.”

“Walk Free’s methodology includes extrapolation using national surveys, databases of information of those who were assisted in trafficking cases, and reports from other agencies like the UN’s International Labour Organization” to compile its figures, explained The Guardian.

There are problems with this methodology, according to others working in the field, The Guardian noted. There’s no universal legal definition, and tabulation difficulties abound. But the GSI addresses this as an issue for governments to work on and offers specific proposals.

“The GSI noted that forced labor occurred ‘in many contexts’ in the U.S., including in agriculture, among traveling sales crews, and—as recent legal cases against GEO Group, Inc. have revealed—as the result of compulsory prison labor in privately owned and operated detention facilities contracted by the Department of Homeland Security,” Project Censored noted.

Newly restrictive immigration policies have further increased the vulnerability of undocumented persons and migrants to modern slavery.

6. Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Sex Trafficking Criminalized for Self-Defense

On Jan. 7, outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who had been sentenced to life in prison in 2004, at age 16, for killing a man who bought her for sex and raped her. Brown’s case gained prominence via the support of A-list celebrities, and Haslam cited “the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.” But despite public impressions, Brown’s case was far from unique.

“There are thousands of Cyntoia Browns in prison,” organizer Mariame Kaba, co-founder of Survived and Punished, told Democracy Now! the next day.

“We should really pay attention to the fact that we should be fighting for all of those to be free,” Kaba said. “When you look at women’s prisons, the overwhelming majority, up to 90 percent of the people in there, have had histories of sexual and physical violence prior to ending up in prison.”

Project Censored wrote: “In contrast to the spate of news coverage from establishment outlets, which focused on Brown’s biography and the details of her case, independent news organizations, including The Guardian, Democracy Now!, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, stood out for reporting that cases like Brown’s are all too common.”

Later in January, Kellie Murphy’s Rolling Stone story quoted Alisa Bierria, another Survived and Punished co-founder, and highlighted several other cases prominent in alternative-media coverage. In May, Mother Jones reported on the legislative progress that Survived and Punished and its allies had achieved in advancing state and federal legislation.

“Corporate news organizations provided considerable coverage of Cyntoia Brown’s clemency,” Project Censored noted. “However, many of these reports treated Brown’s case in isolation, emphasizing her biography or the advocacy on her behalf by celebrities such as Rihanna, Drake, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian West.”

It went on to cite examples from the New York Times and NBC News that did take a broader view, but failed to focus on sex trafficking or sexual violence.

7. Flawed Investigations of Sexual Assaults in Children’s Immigrant Shelters

“Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters,” ProPublica reported in November 2018. “(The shelters) have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014, (and the reports reveal that) both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.”

“Again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly—and with little investigation—closing the cases, often within days, or even hours,” ProPublica stated.

In the case of Alex, a 13-year-old from Honduras, used to highlight systemic problems, the police investigation lasted 72 minutes, and resulted in a three-sentence report. There was surveillance video showing two older teenagers grabbing him, throwing him to the floor and dragging him into a bedroom. But ProPublica reported, “An examination of Alex’s case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex—with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room—had instead failed him.”

“Because immigrant children in detention are frequently moved, even when an investigator wanted to pursue a case, the child could be moved out of the investigating agency’s jurisdiction in a just few weeks, often without warning,” Project Censored noted. “When children are released, parents or relatives may be reluctant to seek justice, avoiding contact with law enforcement because they are undocumented or living with someone who is.”

8. U.S. Women Face Prison Sentences for Miscarriages

“There has to be some form of punishment” for women who have abortions, candidate Donald Trump said in early 2016, which led to a wave of denials from anti-abortion activists and politicians, who claimed it was not their position. These women were victims, too, they argued—that had always been their position.

But that wasn’t true, as Rewire News reported at the time. Women were already in prison, not for abortions, but for miscarriages alleged to be covert abortions. And that could become much more widespread due to actions taken by Trump Administration, according to a 2019 Ms. Magazine blog post by Naomi Randolph on the 46th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, especially if the decision is overturned.

“Pregnant women could face a higher risk of criminal charges for miscarriages or stillbirths, due to lawmakers in numerous states enacting laws that recognize fetuses as people, separate from the mother,” Project Censored explained, adding:

One example that Randolph provided is in Alabama, where voters recently passed a measure that “endows fetuses with ‘personhood’ rights for the first time, potentially making any action that impacts a fetus a criminal behavior with potential for prosecution.” Collectively, these laws have resulted in hundreds of American women facing prosecution for the outcome of their pregnancies.

In fact, a 2015 joint ProPublica/AL.com investigation, found that “at least 479 new and expecting mothers have been prosecuted across Alabama since 2006,” under an earlier child-endangerment law, passed with methamphetamine-lab explosions in mind, which the “personhood movement” got repurposed to target stillbirths, miscarriages and suspected self-abortions.

9. Developing Countries’ Medical Needs Unfulfilled by Big Pharma

“The world’s biggest pharmaceutical firms have failed to develop two-thirds of the 139 urgently needed treatments in developing countries,” Julia Kollewe reported for The Guardian in November 2018, according to a report by Access to Medicine Foundation, which “found that most firms focus on infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, but had failed to focus on other serious ailments. … In particular, the foundation called for an infants’ vaccine for cholera and a single-dose oral cure for syphilis.”

It’s not all bad news. “The foundation’s report also highlighted 45 best and innovative practices that could ‘help raise the level of standard practice’ and ‘achieve greater access to medicine,’” Project Censored noted. “The report highlights examples such as the development of a child-friendly chewable tablet for roundworm and whipworm, which infect an estimated 795 million people,” The Guardian reported. “Johnson and Johnson has pledged to donate 200 million doses a year until 2020.”

The possibilities underscore why attention is vital. Attention makes a difference, Project Censored pointed out: “In an effort to mobilize investors to pressure pharmaceutical companies to make more medicines available to developing countries, the foundation presented the findings of its reports to 81 global investors at events in London, New York, and Tokyo. As of April 2019, Access to Medicine reported that, since the release of the 2018 Access to Medicine Index in November 2018, 90 major investors had pledged support of its research and signed its investor statement.”

But attention has been sorely lacking in the corporate media. “With the exception of a November 2018 article by Reuters, news of the Access to Medicine Index’s findings appear to have gone unreported in the corporate press,” Project Censored concluded.

10. Pentagon Aims to Surveil Social Media to Predict Domestic Protests

“The United States government is accelerating efforts to monitor social media to preempt major anti-government protests in the U.S.,” Nafeez Ahmed reported for Motherboard in October 2018, drawing on “scientific research, official government documents, and patent filings.” Specifically, “The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest U.S. military-funded research,” which in turn “is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the U.S. military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.”

The Pentagon had previously funded Big Data research into predicting mass population behavior, “specifically the outbreak of conflict, terrorism, and civil unrest,” especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, via a program known as “Embers.” But such attention wasn’t solely focused abroad, Ahmed noted, calling attention to a U.S. Army-backed study on civil unrest within the U.S. homeland, titled “Social Network Structure as a Predictor of Social Behavior: The Case of Protest in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.”

Ahmed discussed two specific patents which contribute to “a sophisticated technology suite capable of locating the ‘home’ position of users to within 10 kilometers for millions of Twitter accounts, and predicting thousands of incidents of civil unrest from micro-blogging streams on Tumblr.”

Project Censored made no mention of any coverage of this story by the corporate media.

Published in Features

On this week's sanitized-for-your-protection weekly Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson places the refusal of Facebook to remove that Nancy Pelosi video in historical context; (Th)ink looks at Robert Mueller's warning; This Modern World predicts what will happen after the 2020 election; Red Meat seeks some extra work; and Apoca Clips ponders at the end of Jon Voight's legacy.

Published in Comics

The cause of government transparency finally broke through to the popular zeitgeist this year.

It wasn’t an investigative journalism exposé or a civil rights lawsuit that did it, but a light-hearted sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family set in Orlando, Fla., in the late 1990s.

In a January episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family’s two youngest children—overachievers Evan and Emery—decide if they sprint on all their homework, they’ll have time to plan their father’s birthday party.

“Like the time we knocked out two English papers, a science experiment, and built the White House out of sugar cubes,” Evan said. “It opened up our Sunday for filing Freedom of Information requests.”

“They may not have figured out who shot JFK,” Emery added. “But we will.”

The eldest child, teenage-slacker Eddie, concluded with a sage nod, “You know, once in a while, it’s good to know nerds.”

Amen to that. Around the world, nerds of all ages are using laws like the United States’ Freedom of Information Act (and state-level equivalent laws) to pry free secrets and expose the inner workings of our democracy. Each year, open government advocates celebrate these heroes this time of year during Sunshine Week, an annual advocacy campaign on transparency.

But the journalists and researchers who rely on these important measures every day can’t help but smirk at the boys’ scripted innocence. Too often, government officials will devise novel and outrageous ways to reject requests for information or otherwise stymie the public’s right to know. Even today—20 years after the events set in the episode—the White House continues to withhold key documents from the Kennedy assassination files.

Since 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a nonprofit that advocates for free speech, privacy and government transparency in the digital age) has published The Foilies to recognize the bad actors who attempted to thwart the quests for truth of today’s Evans and Emerys. With these tongue-in-cheek awards, we call out attempts to block transparency, retaliation against those who exercise their rights to information, and the most ridiculous examples of incompetence by government officials who handle these public records.


The Corporate Eclipse Award: Google, Amazon, and Facebook

Sunshine laws? Tech giants think they can just blot those out with secretive contracts. But two nonprofit groups—Working Partnerships and the First Amendment Coalition—are fighting this practice in California by suing the city of San Jose over an agreement with Google that prevents city officials from sharing the public impacts of development deals, circumventing the California Public Records Act.

Google’s proposed San Jose campus is poised to have a major effect on the city’s infrastructure, Bloomberg reported. Yet, according to the organization’s lawsuit, records analyzing issues of public importance such as traffic impacts and environmental compliance were among the sorts of discussions Google demanded be made private under their nondisclosure agreements.

It’s not just Google using these tactics. An agreement between Amazon and Virginia includes a provision that the state will give the corporate giant—which is placing a major campus in the state—a heads-up when anyone files a public-records request asking for information about them. The Columbia Journalism Review reported that Facebook has also used this increasingly common strategy for companies to keep cities quiet and the public in the dark about major construction projects.


The Unnecessary Box Set Award: Central Intelligence Agency

After suing the CIA to get access to information about Trump’s classified briefings, Kel McClanahan of National Security Counselors was expecting the agency to send over eight agreed-upon documents.

What he was not expecting was for the files—each between three and nine pages each—-to be spread out across six separate CD-ROMs, each burned within minutes of each other, making for perhaps the most unnecessary box set in the history of the compact disc.

What makes this “extra silly,” McClanahan said, is that the CIA has previously complained about how burdensome and costly fulfilling requests can be. Yet the CIA could have easily combined several requests onto the same disc and saved themselves some time and resources. After all, a standard CD-ROM can hold 700 MB, and all of the files took only 304 KB of space.


The (Harlem) Shaky Grounds for Redaction Award: Federal Communications Commission

After repealing the Open Internet Order and ending net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai doubled down on his efforts to ruin online culture. He released a cringe-inducing YouTube video titled “7 Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality“ that featured his own rendition of the infamous “Harlem Shake” meme. (For the uninitiated, the meme is characterized by one person subtly dancing in a room of people to Baauer’s track “Harlem Shake.” Then the bass drops, and the crowd goes nuts, often with many people in costumes.)

Muckrock editor JPat Brown filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails related to the video, but the FCC rejected the request, claiming the communications were protected “deliberative” records.

Brown appealed the decision, and the FCC responded by releasing all the email headers, while redacting the contents, claiming that anything more would cause “foreseeable harm.” Brown did not relent, and a year later, the FCC capitulated and released the unredacted emails.

“So, what did these emails contain that was so potentially damaging that it was worth risking a potential FOIA lawsuit over?” Brown writes. “Pai was curious when it was going live, and the FCC wanted to maintain a veto power over the video if they didn’t like it.” The most ridiculous redaction of all was a tiny black box in an email from the FCC media director. Once removed, all that was revealed was a single word: “OK.”


The Unreliable Narrator Award: President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. District Court Judges

When President Trump tweets attacks about the intelligence community, transparency groups and journalists often file FOIA requests (and subsequently lawsuits) seeking the documents that underpin his claims. The question that often comes up: Do Trump’s smartphone rants break the seal of secrecy on confidential programs?

The answer seems to be no. Multiple judges have sided with Justice Department lawyers, concluding that his Twitter disclosures do not mean that the government has to confirm or deny whether records about those activities exist.

In a FOIA case seeking documents that would show whether Trump is under investigation, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said that the President’s tweets to that effect are “speculation.” Similarly, in a FOIA suit to get more information about the widely publicized dossier of potential ties between Trump and Russia, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said that the president’s statements are political rather than “assertions of pure fact.”

And so, whether Trump actually knows what he’s talking about remains an open question.


The Cross-Contamination Award: Stanford Law Professor Daniel Ho

One of the benefits of public records laws is they allow almost anyone—regardless of legal acumen—to force government agencies to be more transparent, usually without having to file a lawsuit.

But in Washington state, filing a public-records request can put the requester at legal risk of being named in a lawsuit should someone else not want the records to be made public.

This is what happened to Sarah Schacht, a Seattle-based open-government advocate and consultant. For years, Schacht has used public records to advocate for better food-safety rules in King County, an effort that led to the adoption of food-safety placards found in restaurants in the region.

After Schacht filed another round of requests with the county health department, she received a legal threat in November 2018 from Stanford Law School professor Daniel Ho’s attorney threatening to sue her unless she abandoned her request. Apparently, Ho has been working with the health department to study the new food-safety and placard regulations. He had written draft studies that he shared with the health department, making them public records.

Ho’s threat amounted to an effort to intimidate Schacht from receiving public records, probably because he had not formally published his studies first. Regardless of motive, the threat was an awful look. But even when faced with the threat, Schacht refused to abandon her request.

Fortunately, the lawsuit never materialized, and Schacht was able to receive the records. Although Ho’s threats made him look like a bully, the real bad actor in this scenario is Washington State’s public-records law. The state’s top court has interpreted the law to require parties seeking to stop agencies from releasing records (sometimes called reverse-FOIA suits) to also sue the original requester along with the government agency.


The Scanner Darkly Award: St. Joseph County Superior Court

ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman has been digging deep into the child-welfare system and what happens when child abuse results in death. While following up on a series of strangulations, she requested a copy of a case file from the St. Joseph County Superior Court in Indiana. Apparently, the clerk on the other end simply took the entire file and ran everything through a scanner. The problem was that the file contained a CD-ROM, and that’s not how CD-ROMs work. “Well, this is the first time this had happened,” Huseman posted to Twitter, along with the blotchy black-and-white image of the top of the disc. “They scanned a CD as part of my FOI and didn’t give me its contents. Cool cool.”


The Cash for Crash Award: Michigan State Police

As tech companies experiment with autonomous vehicles on public roadways, reporters are keeping tabs on how often these cars are involved in collisions. That’s why The Information’s Matt Drange has been filing records requests for the crash data held by state agencies. Some government departments have started claiming that every line of the dataset is its own individual record—subject to a copy fee. Our winner, the Michigan State Police, proposed to charge Drange a 25-cent fee for each of a 1.9 million-line dataset, plus $20 for a thumb drive, for a grand total of $485,645.24, with half of it due up front. Runners-up that quoted similar line-by-line charges include the Indiana State Police ($346,000) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation ($82,000).

Meanwhile, Florida’s government released its detailed dataset at no charge at all.


The Bartering With Extremists Award: California Highway Patrol

In 2016, the Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), an infamous neo-Nazi group, staged a demonstration at the California State Capitol. Counter-protesters fiercely opposed the demonstration, and the scene soon descended into chaos, leaving multiple people injured. When the dust settled, a member of the public (who, we should disclose, is a co-author of this piece) filed a California Public Records Act request to obtain a copy of the permit the white nationalist group filed for its rally. The California Highway Patrol rejected the request for this normally available document, claiming it was related to a criminal investigation.

Two years later, evidence emerged during criminal proceedings that a CHP detective used the public-records request as a bargaining chip in a phone call with the TWP protest leader, who was initially reluctant to provide information. The officer told him how the request might reveal his name. “We don’t have a reason to … uh … deny (the request),” the officer said, according a transcript of the call. But once the organizer decided to cooperate, the officer responded, “I’m gonna suggest that we hold that or redact your name or something … uh … until this thing gets resolved.”

In light of these new facts, the First Amendment Coalition filed a new request for the same document. It, too, was denied.


The Pre-emptive Shredding Award: Inglewood Police Department

In defiance of the law-enforcement lobby, California legislators passed a law (SB 1421) requiring police and sheriffs to disclose officer-misconduct records in response to California Public Records Act requests. These documents, often contained in personnel files, had historically been untouchable by members of the public and the press.

Almost immediately, police unions across the Golden State began to launch lawsuits to undermine these new transparency measures. But the Inglewood Police Department takes the prize for its efforts to evade scrutiny. Mere weeks before the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the agency began destroying records that were set to become publicly available.

“This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous,” Inglewood Mayor James T Butts Jr. told the Los Angeles Times in defending the purge. We imagine Butts would find it equally ridiculous to suggest that the fact he had also been a cop for more than 30 years, including serving in Inglewood and later as police chief of Santa Monica, may have factored into his support for the destruction of records.


The What the Swat? Award: Nova Scotia and Halifax Law Enforcement

One Wednesday morning in April, 15 Halifax police officers raided the home of a teenage boy and his family. “They read us our rights and told us not to talk,” his mother would later tell the CBC. “They rifled through everything. They turned over mattresses; they took drawers and emptied out drawers; they went through personal papers, pictures. It was totally devastating and traumatic.”

You might well wonder: What was the Jack Bauer-class threat to geo-political stability? Nothing at all: The Canadian teen had just downloaded a host of public records from openly available URLs on a government website.

At the heart of the ordeal was some seriously terrible security practices by Nova Scotia officials. The website created to host the province’s public records was designed in such a way that every request and response had a nearly identical URL and placed no technical restrictions on the public’s ability to access any of the requests. This meant that regular public-records requests and individuals’ requests to access government files about them, which included private information, were all stored together and available on the internet for anyone, including Google’s webcrawler, to access. All that was necessary was changing a number identifying the request at the end of the URL.

What Nova Scotian officials should have done upon learning about leaks in their own public-records website’s problems was apologize to the public, thank the teen who found these gaping holes in their digital security practices, and implement proper restrictions to protect people’s private information. They didn’t do any of that, and instead sought to improperly bring the force of Canada’s criminal hacking law down on the very person who brought the problem to light.

The whole episode—which thankfully ended with the government dropping the charges—was a chilling example of how officials will often overreact and blame innocent third parties when trying to cover up their own failings. This horror show just happened to involve public records. Do better, Canada.


The Outrageous Fee Request of the Year: City of Seattle

When self-described transparency advocate and civic hacker Matt Chapman sent his request to Seattle seeking the email metadata from all city email addresses (from/to/BCC addresses, time, date, etc.), he expected some pushback, because it does sound like an incredible amount of data to wrangle.

Seattle’s response: All the data can be yours for a measly $33 million. Officials estimated that it would take 320 years’ worth of staff time to review the roughly 32 million emails responsive to Chapman’s request. Oh, and they estimated charging an additional $21,600 for storage costs associated with the records. The fee request is the second highest in the history of The Foilies. (The Department of Defense won in 2016 for estimating it would take $660 million to produce records on a particular computer forensic tool.)

Then the city did something entirely unexpected: It revisited the fee estimate and determined that the first batch of records would cost only $1.25 to process. We get it; math is hard.

But wait—that’s not all. After paying for the batches of records with a series of $1.25 checks, Chapman received more than he ever bargained for: Rather than disclosing just the metadata for all 32 million emails, Seattle had given him the first 256 characters of every email. Those snippets included passwords, credit card numbers and other personally identifying information.

What followed was a series of conversations between Chapman, Seattle’s lawyers and the city’s IT folks to ensure he’d deleted the records and that the city hadn’t just breached its own data protections via a public-records request.

Ultimately, Seattle officials in January 2018 began sending the data to Chapman once more, this time without the actual content of email messages. The whole episode doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Seattle officials’ ability to do basic math, comply with the public records law or protect sensitive information.


The Intern Art Project Award: Vermont Gov. Phil Scott

Seattle isn’t the only city to stumble in response to Matt Chapman’s public-records requests for email metadata. The Vermont governor’s office also wins for its scissor-and-glue approach to releasing electronic information.

Rather than export the email information as a spreadsheet, the Vermont governor’s office told Chapman it had five interns (three of whom were unpaid) working six hours each, literally “cutting and pasting the emails from paper copies.” The next thing Chapman knew, he had a 43-page hodgepodge collage of email headers correlating with one day’s worth of messages. The governor’s attorney told Chapman it would cost $1,200 to process three more days’ worth of emails.

Chapman pushed back and provided his own instructions on exporting the data using a computer and not, you know, scissors and glue. Sure enough, he received a 5,500-line spreadsheet a couple of weeks later at no charge.


The Least-Transparent Employer Award: U.S. Department of Justice

In the last few years, we’ve seen some great resignation letters from public servants, ranging from Defense Secretary James Mattis telling President Trump, “It’s not me; it’s you,” to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ forced resignation.

But the Trump DOJ seems to have had enough of the tradition and has now determined that U.S. Attorney resignation letters are private in their entirety and cannot be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Of course, civil servants should have their private information protected by their employer, but that’s precisely what redactions should be used to protect.

Past administrations have released resignation letters that are critical of executive branch leaders. The change in policy raises the question: What are departing U.S. Attorneys now saying that the government wants to hide?


The Clawback Award: The Broward County School Board

After the tragic Parkland shooting, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel went to court to force the Broward County School Board to hand over documents detailing the shooter’s education and disciplinary record. A judge agreed and ordered the release, as long as sensitive information was redacted.

But when reporters copied and pasted the file into another document, they found that the content under the redactions was still there and readable. They broke the story of how the school denied the shooter therapeutic services and alternative education accommodations, but then uploaded the school board’s report with working redactions.

Rather than simply do better with double-checking their redactions next time, the school board struck back at the newspaper. They petitioned the court to hold the newspaper in contempt and to prevent anyone from reporting on the legally obtained information. Although the local judge didn’t issue a fine, she lambasted the paper and threatened to dictate exactly what the paper could report about the case in the future (which is itself an unconstitutional prior restraint).


The Wrong Way to Plug a Leak Award: City of Greenfield, Calif.

The Monterey County Weekly unexpectedly found itself in court after the city of Greenfield, Calif., sued to keep the newspaper from publishing documents about the surprising termination of its city manager.

When editor Sara Rubin asked the interim city manager for the complaint the outgoing city manager filed after his termination, she got nothing but crickets. But then an envelope containing details of a potential city political scandal appeared on the doorstep of one of the paper’s columnists.

The weekly reached out to the city for comment and began preparing for its normal Wednesday print deadline. Then, the morning of publication, the paper got a call saying that they were due in court: The city sued to block publication of the documents, to have the documents returned and to have the paper reveal the identity of the leaker.

Attorney Kelly Aviles of the First Amendment Coalition gave everyone a fast lesson in the First Amendment, pointing out that the paper had every right to publish. The judge ruled in the paper’s favor, and the city ended up paying all of the Monterey County Weekly’s attorney fees.


If it Looks like a Duck Award: Brigham Young University Police

Brigham Young University’s Police Department is certified by the state,* and has the powers of the state, but says that they’re not actually a part of government for purposes of the Utah transparency law.

After the Salt Lake Tribune exposed that the university punished survivors of sexual assault for coming forward and reporting, the paper tried to get records of communications between the police department and the school’s federally required sexual assault coordinator. BYU pushed back, saying that the police department is not subject to Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act because the police department is privately funded.

This turns out to be a trickier legal question than you’d expect. Brigham Young University itself isn’t covered by the state law because it is a private school. But the university police force was created by an act of the Utah Legislature, and the law covers entities “established by the government to carry out the public’s business.” Investigating crime and arresting people seems like the public’s business.

Last summer, a judge ruled that the police department is clearly a state agency, but the issue is now on appeal at the Utah Supreme Court. Sometime this year, we should learn if the police are a part of the government or not.

*Because BYU police failed to comply with state law, and was not responsive to an internal investigation, the Utah Office of Public Safety notified the department on Feb 20 that the BYU police department will be stripped of its certification on Sept. 1, 2019. The university police also plan to appeal this decision.


The Insecure Security Check Award: U.S. Postal Service

Congressional elections can turn ugly, but the opponent of newly elected U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger got a boost when the U.S. Postal Service released Spanberger’s entire personnel file, including her security-clearance application, without redaction of highly sensitive personal information.

When a third party requests a person’s federal employment file without the employee’s permission, the government agency normally releases only a bare-bones record of employment dates, according to a Postal Service spokesperson. But somehow Rep. Spanberger wasn’t afforded these protections, and the Postal Service has potentially made this mistake in a “small number” of other cases this year. Security-clearance applications (Form SF-86) are supposed to be analyzed and investigated by the FBI, raising questions about how the FOIA officer got the information in the first place. The Postal Service has apologized for the mistake, which they say is human error, but maybe security-clearance applications should be kept just as secure as the state secrets the clearance is meant to protect.

The Foilies were compiled by Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, Staff Attorney Aaron Mackey, Frank Stanton Fellow Camille Fischer, and Activist Hayley Tsukayama. Illustrations by EFF Art Director Hugh D’Andrade. For more on our work, visit eff.org.

Published in Features

On this week's cranberry-crazy weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World hears what the Talking Trumpie Bear has to say; Jen Sorenson flees from all the notifications; The K Chronicles pays tribute to the Sharpie; Red Meat does some cosmetics testing; and Apoca Clips watches with disbelief as Li'l Trumpy visits the Camp Fire devastation.

Published in Comics

A couple of weeks ago, my husband, Garrett, decided to get more active on Facebook. One of his motivations was a realization that our friends are, for the most part, like-minded—Democrats, fairly liberal, etc.

He decided to send friend requests to anyone with 50 or more mutual friends—people with whom he likely had something in common, but didn’t necessarily already know.

His Facebook friends list grew by hundreds over the next few days … and this led to some interesting things. A few of his new “friends” instantly hit on him. He had a couple of nice conversations with people regarding their common connections. And he discovered that some of his new Facebook friends were rather fervent Trump supporters.

For some people—many people, actually—this would have led to an instant click of the “unfriend” link. I’ve seen a lot of my liberal friends brag with glee after unfriending Trump supporters who had chosen to speak out on Facebook; I’ve even heard some talk about unfriending people who merely clicked “like” on Trump’s page, even though people “like” Facebook pages for a lot of different reasons.

However, Garrett’s goal was not to simply become “friends” with yet more people who shared his opinions—so rather than clicking “unfriend,” he decided to engage.

I asked Garrett what he has learned so far from his Trump-supporting friends. His rather depressing response: “They’re self-isolating and aren’t interested in other opinions.”

In other words, they’re just like our liberal friends.

There’s a lesson to be learned here: We should all be a little more like Garrett, and reach out more to our neighbors who may not agree with us. After all, we need to share our roads, our stores, our cities, our planet; shouldn’t we at least make an effort to understand each other? As Garrett said to one of the Trump supporters (who, alas, went on to unfriend him): “If we can’t communicate with each other, democracy doesn’t work.”

I am going to repeat that, because it’s important: If we can’t communicate with each other, democracy doesn’t work.

Today and tomorrow, the Independent is joining hundreds of newspapers and news websites around the country in publishing editorials calling on President Donald Trump to stop his near-constant attacks on the freedom of the press. Since before he took office, Trump has repeatedly, and angrily, denounced the news media as a whole—even, as I recently mentioned, going so far to refer to the media as “enemy of the people.”

I could go into details here about how this rhetoric is right out of the authoritarianism playbook. I could elaborate on how the news media is not one big, cohesive entity, but instead, many hundreds of publications with all sorts of different editorial philosophies and viewpoints, ranging from sharply liberal to staunchly conservative. I could go on and on … but I won’t. I’ll just again repeat Garrett’s words: If we can’t communicate with each other, democracy doesn’t work.

The nation’s free, unrestricted press is one of the ways we communicate with each other—and the unwarranted, unspecific and potentially dangerous verbal attacks by the president on the free press must stop.

We all need to do better. As citizens, we need to do a better job of understanding other. As newspapers, we need to make sure we’re being as diverse as possible—inclusive of all valid viewpoints and concerns. Our public officials need to do a better job of representing their constituents—all of them—and being leaders.

Of course, leadership starts at the top, and in the United States, that means it starts with the president of the United States.

No matter what your politics are, I hope we can all agree: Journalists are not the enemy. Because if we can’t communicate with each other, democracy doesn’t work.

Published in Editor's Note

On this week's growing weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World checks in with Sean Spicer; Jen Sorenson examines Neil Gorsuch's record; The K Chronicles gets an odd Facebook friend suggestion; Red Meat welcomes some religious proselytizers; and Apoca Clips debuts with the president visiting the new barber shop.

Published in Comics

As a political talk-radio host, I am constantly dealing with people who don’t agree with me.

Some callers spout nonsense conspiracy theories. Others copy tried-and-true applause lines from their political heroes. Still others simply yell and shout their personal prejudices, uninterested in facts or reasonable discourse. Even those who agree with me often have skewed reasoning.

What’s a responsible broadcaster to do?

I learned a long time ago that I will probably never change the mind of the person on the other end of the line. I’ve also learned that trying to over-shout someone just leads to noise and no light.

I also have the luxury of being able to hit the “dump” button.

Alas, there is no “dump” button in real life. In this ever-polarized political environment, national and local, I know people who refuse to attend family dinners because of, for example, the brother-in-law who sputters the worst politically incorrect characterizations in front of young children. I know people who won’t go to their card-game group because one member likes to stir the pot. I know people who are frustrated about how to respond when they overhear ridiculous points of view pontificated in the next booth at the restaurant or the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

My friend Eileen Stern is not someone you would expect to ever throw in the towel on her outspoken support for causes and activism. So I was astonished to read a Facebook post by her recently: “Just like the alcoholic, the drug addict, the food addict, I have been binging on politics and I have literally overdosed. I am feeding on toxicity and it is taking me beyond where I want to go.”

Stern, a long-time desert resident, was born and raised in Chicago. She and her husband, Marv, were originally snowbirds here, but they have now lived in the Palm Springs area as permanent residents for more than 18 years.

“I’m very blessed to be in a financial situation where we’re able to be comfortable—but I didn’t grow up that way,” she says. “I lived in public housing and went to public schools.”

Stern became a buyer and marketing executive at Sears, a male-dominated environment where, she says, “I had to prove myself—but at least I had the chance.” That experience got Stern involved in support for affirmative action. Her subsequent involvement in other causes included opposing the Vietnam War, working on the Robert Kennedy presidential campaign, supporting passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and participating in the March on Washington.

“I’m no activist, but I’ve been active my whole adult life,” she says, without appreciating the irony. “I got energized by the candidacy of President Obama, after a long hiatus of not really being too involved, and went to Nevada to work on his campaign with a couple of friends.”

In the Coachella Valley, Stern’s involvement has included participation with the Democratic Women of the Desert, the Hike for Hope and the Jewish Film Festival.

A few years ago, she became involved with Planned Parenthood. Stern and her husband agreed to host an event at their home featuring Sandra Fluke, the young woman who spoke out passionately about women having access to contraception—and was subsequently vilified by Rush Limbaugh, who publicly referred to Fluke as “a slut.”

The following year, Stern hosted another Planned Parenthood event, “and I realized the organization had no fundraising arm here in the valley.” October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Planned Parenthood affiliates in the Coachella Valley perform more than 1,800 breast cancer screenings each year.

“The group’s opponents have done a very good job of painting Planned Parenthood as a ‘one trick pony,’ focusing solely on abortion, when 97 percent of their activities are not abortion-related,” says Stern. “You don’t get to make up your own facts.”

That led her to help organize the Reel Women’s Movie Marathon, a local film festival designed to highlight Planned Parenthood’s focus on breast-health programs, featuring diverse films about women—from the “barefoot grandmamas” of India, illiterate women being trained as solar engineers, to stories of forced marriages and women fighting gender discrimination both abroad and in the U.S. The first festival was held last year; at this year’s second event, attendance doubled.

With this background, what led Stern to her post on Facebook?

“We can all become as entrenched as anyone on the other side of an issue,” she says. “I recently attended a political event for a local candidate and got into an argument with someone with whom I didn’t agree at all about a key issue. I’m not normally a confrontational person, but every time she tried to talk, I cut her off, and it kept escalating. I embarrassed her, and I embarrassed myself. I knew afterward that the way I handled it was over the top. It was so not me.”

That incident led to Stern’s post on Facebook.

“I post a lot,” she says, “so it seemed the most appropriate way to handle my feelings afterward.”

Eileen Stern is not someone you would expect to stop standing up for what she believes in. And the truth is, she hasn’t. Her Facebook post led to so many responses—mostly supportive and encouraging her not to step back—that she was astonished.

“I always try to be respectful,” she says. “I try to post facts and not make it personal. I don’t want to offend anyone.”

Stern’s heartfelt post is both cautionary and encouraging. “I am finding myself at odds with others, many of whom I never was at odds with before,” she posted. “I cannot allow myseIf to binge on it, lest it make me intolerant. I will try not to engage others in debate on what we do not agree with. I will fight for what I believe in, but in my heart I am a peacemaker … I am going to weigh and measure my political input just as we all strive to weigh and measure our lives.”

We need more people like Eileen Stern, who care passionately about issues and are willing to take an active role in the community, who constantly self-monitor to stay positive, listen to others’ points of view, stand up for what they believe and make a difference. Lucky for us, in spite of her Facebook post, Eileen Stern hasn’t given up.

On the radio, I’ve developed the philosophy that if I can at least convince others that there is a civil way to respond to those spouting off, and respect differences of opinion—to disagree without being disagreeable—then I’ve done my job.

Of course, for me, there’s always the “dump” button.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

On this week's private Independent comics page: Red Meat ditches the office; Jen Sorenson does some video chatting behind the wheel; The K Chronicles finds a uniquely SoCal angle in the new Mad Max flick; and This Modern World has a privacy chat with a social-media boss.

Published in Comics