Filmmaker James Kleinert had to fight to obtain requested Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records from the Bureau of Land Management, and filed a lawsuit against them. Kleinert’s Wild Horses & Renegades facebook page included this edited message from his attorney, Daniel J. Stotter, “Just received a nice win from the DC federal court in our FOIA case James Kleinert v BLM. An excellent FOIA ruling, setting favorable law on our adequacy of search objection issues, and strongly admonishing the BLM for its improper FOIA withholdings and their failure to meet the legal requirements of FOIA exemptions (b)(5), (b)(6) and (b)(7)(c). Here’s a link to the court’s decision:
KLEINERT v. BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, No. 1:2014cv01506 – Document 29 (D.D.C. 2015)
Excerpts from Opinion by the Court on James Kleinert v Bureau of Land Management:
Kleinert is a documentary filmmaker whose work has focused on American wild horses. This vocation has brought Kleinert into repeated contact with BLM, which manages public lands where wild horses live and administers the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Kleinert and the agency have not had an entirely cordial relationship: Kleinert has sharply criticized BLM’s treatment of wild horses. In recent years Kleinert has come to believe that “BLM has been targeting [his] filming of wild horses on the public lands . . . by seeking to restrict [his] access to film at locations that would depict these issues.”
This targeting, he suggests, “is related to the agency’s opposition to, and disagreement with, the content of [his] films, and [his] advocacy as to these issues,” and is aimed at limiting his “ability to facilitate public oversight of the agency’s actions.”
When nearly a full year passed without the delivery of any records, Kleinert filed this suit to compel BLM to respond to his request.
It seems, though, that BLM had sent Kleinert a compilation of responsive records in January 2014, but for reasons unknown— they never showed up in Kleinert’s mail.
Kleinert cross moved for summary judgment, arguing that many of the redactions were unjustified, and also that BLM had not conducted an adequate search of its records.
Kleinert’s motion prompted BLM to take another look—which revealed that the agency had indeed failed to provide a number of responsive records.
But Kleinert contends that BLM has still not demonstrated the adequacy of its search or the propriety of many redactions, including some in the newly released materials.
The Court noted (in part):
The Court was in doubt about whether the agency conducted a reasonable search.
For the most part, BLM failed to convince the Court that their redactions were justified.
With respect to the Exemption 5 (deliberative process) redactions that Kleinert challenged, BLM failed to show that its invocation of the deliberative process privilege was justified.
BLM’s submissions did not convince the Court that some redacted materials “reflect the personal opinions of the writer rather than the policy of the agency.”
BLM’s reliance on Exemption 7(C) for the most part faltered at the first step because BLM did not convince the Court that the bulk of the redacted records were “compiled for law enforcement purposes.”
(Regarding Exemption 7), “the individuals whose names and titles have been redacted here fit none of those categories. They are BLM employees who signed non-confidential official documents that happened to be reviewed and summarized years later by investigators examining tangentially related events. The risk of harassment, embarrassment, or reputational damage here — if not absent entirely—seems about as close to nil as it could get.”
Given that the privacy interests here are truly de minimis, the balancing favors disclosure. Kleinert has articulated a significant public interest behind his FOIA request: determining whether BLM is unfairly restricting his ability to film on public lands because of his views. This inquiry of course has special significance for Kleinert, but the public generally has an interest in learning if an agency is retaliating against its media critics.
“Exemption 6 does not categorically exempt individuals’ identities.” The absence of such a per se rule is fatal to BLM’s invocation of Exemption 6, for the agency has failed to explain with meaningful specificity why releasing the challenged information would significantly threaten anyone’s privacy. …And the Court will certainly not accept the suggestion that the remote possibility of harassment means that every disclosure of a name implicates a significant privacy interest.