Washington Brief - May 1999

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Dateline: March 25, 1999

AALL Joins NOLO Press in Lawsuit against the Texas UPLC

As noted in the AALL press release of March 17th, AALL has joined Nolo Press as a plaintiff in their lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment as to the legal status in Texas of Nolo's self-help legal publications. The Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee (UPLC) has declared that self-help legal publications constitute the "unauthorized practice of law" and is seeking to ban the sale and distribution of books and software similar to Nolo's from libraries and bookstores in Texas. The Texas Library Association and six users of Nolo materials are the other co-plaintiffs. Supporting public access to self-help legal materials in Texas is not a new issue for AALL. We wrote a letter to the UPLC in May 1998, as it began its investigation of Nolo Press, stating that we believe that such materials assist the public in understanding the law and do not constitute the unauthorized practice of law. Our thanks to GRC member Keith Stiverson, Deputy Law Librarian at Tarlton Law Library, for her invaluable assistance in working locally with the Nolo legal team and coordinating efforts with the Texas Library Association.

FOI Day Celebration at the Freedom Forum

The 10th anniversary celebration of the Madison Award by the American Library Association and the Coalition on Government Information, of which AALL is a member, was hosted by the Freedom Forum on March 16, 1999. It was a highly successful one day conference on Access to Information: Strategies and Solutions. Its focus on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the increased declassification of Federal records dovetailed nicely with the excellent work of the 1999 Madison Award winners, the congressional sponsors and members of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board. One of the ingredients of the day's success is that it attracted a full house, bringing together members of the press, government agency officials, librarians, historians, representatives from the non-profit community, former congressional staffers, attorneys and others interested in FOIA issues. New personal contacts made during the day will be very helpful in our efforts to champion public access to government information and FOIA issues.

The morning began with a presentation by Roslyn Mazer, chair of the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) at the Department of Justice. She set a positive tone for the day by highlighting the success of President Clinton's Executive Order No. 12,958 that mandated automatic declassification--as she put it, "maximum responsible disclosure"-- of documents within 25 years. Three distinguished panels presented interesting and lively discussions on: When FOIA Requests Wind Up in Court; Posting Chemical Plant Worst-case Scenarios on the Net; and A Success Story: Release of JFK Assassination Records. Panelists conceded that the classification of records is a formidable culture problem for agencies, almost a "reflexive" security measure. They debated how this practice might be changed, and most agreed that the development of government wide standards or guidelines might serve as a partial solution, along with the ability afforded agencies by technology. White House Chief of Staff John Podesta gave the keynote address and he reiterated the substantial progress made under the Clinton Administration to declassify documents. He joined others who, throughout the day, agreed that the JFK Board's success lay in the strong detailed legislative language establishing it as an independent entity. This autonomy served to heighten public confidence in the outcome of its decisions. The consensus reached was that the Board's work is an excellent model, and one that the Administration successfully followed when Clinton agreed to declassify documents relating to human rights violations in Guatemala. My June column for Documents to the People (http://www.aallnet.org/aallwash/wash0699.asp) provides a more lengthy summary of the day's events. In addition, the Freedom Forum has made available RealAudio files at http://www.freedomforum.org/first/1999/2/ombudevents.asp.

More about the EPA and WCS Information

House and Senate committees have held hearings recently to air concerns that EPA's plans to disseminate important public information--mandated by Section 112(r) of the 1990 Clean Air Act-- through the Internet might lead to terrorist attacks. Chemical companies have until June 21, 1999 to submit to the EPA their Risk Management Plans that contain chemical hazard information needed to reduce the risks of industrial accidents, save lives, protect health and property, and prevent pollution. AALL has joined environmental, community and other right-to-know groups in insisting that broad dissemination of "Worst-case Scenario" (WCS) data will motivate chemical companies to reduce hazardous risks while alerting the public to the existence of hazardous materials in their neighborhoods. Chemical companies, seeking to limit broad public access to this data, have raised the specter of terrorism as a scare tactic. In recent letters to House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas J. Bliley (R-VA), we have urged him to reconsider introducing legislation that would limit the disclosure of the non-classified WCS information by disseminating it in CD-ROM format that "could not be copied, duplicated, or posted on the Internet." We believe that this does not satisfy all FOIA requests and we are equally concerned that, if Congress does limit public access to this data, it will serve as a bad precedent for other agencies to follow in limiting access to potentially "sensitive" yet non-classified government information. Stay tuned because, with the fast approaching reporting deadline of mid-June, efforts to postpone the deadline and/or curb or restrict disclosure will be on the legislative fast track.

Mary Alice Baish
Associate Washington Affairs Representative
Edward B. WIlliams Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-1417
202/662-9200 * FAX:202/662-9202