Associate Professor of Government Gbemende Johnson has received a $242,810 grant from the National Science Foundation to examine what happens when a Freedom of Information request ends up in court.

The federal Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, gives the public the right to request and obtain most government records. The act is a critical tool for the public to use to monitor its government.

“Transparency is often lauded as a cornerstone of democracy,” Johnson said. “The public’s ability to see the inner workings of the government promotes an informed citizenry and enables accountability of officials. In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act facilitates the release of government records to thousands of individuals and organizations each year.”

But the law also allows the government to withhold certain kinds of records, and when that happens, the issue sometimes ends up in court. The NSF grant will enable Johnson and co-principal investigator, Vanderbilt Professor of Law Tracey George, to study the legal complications that emerge as government agencies weigh the needs of the requester against the potential harm that could result if the record were released.

“The dynamic between courts and executives is fascinating given that executives are responsible for implementing judicial decisions that could eventually restrict executive authority, and much of my research explores the treatment of executive actors in court,” Johnson said.

Through the grant, Johnson will study court opinions. A broader understanding of the litigation can lead to policies that better meet the needs of the public, while acknowledging the privacy needs of government, she said. The two-year grant will pay for Hamilton students who will work with Johnson to collect data and analyze their cases at various intervals throughout the grant period.

Johnson has been interested in “transparency litigation” since she was in graduate school. Her Ph.D. dissertation explored state supreme court decision-making on challenges to gubernatorial power; some of the challenges included executive privilege claims. This project is an extension of her previously published research on transparency disputes.

In the most significant FOIA disputes, decisions instruct agency officials and define the extent of the public’s reach into federal agency records. “Understanding the way in which judicial actors mediate the relationship between governments and requesters is essential to the discourse surrounding transparency in democracies,” Johnson added.

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