The Freedom of Information Act as a Methodological Tool: Suing the Government for Data

Matthew G. Yeager, Carleton University

The enactment of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act in 1966, and the corresponding Access to Information Act in Canada circa 1983, were designed to make Government more open and accountable to the general public. Of course, neither Act has functioned that way, with most requests being made by lawyers, information professionals, corporations, and political parties, among others.

Academic researchers, particularly criminal justice types, have used the Act to access a variety of information from government files. For instance, Alan Block (1980, 1994) used old FBI files for his study of Jewish gangsters in New York City. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall (1990) have used the act to illustrate government law breaking in the FBI COINTELPRO program against Native Americans, the Black Panthers, and other progressive groups . Only rarely, however, have academics elected to take the Government to court and file for judicial review of the Government's disclosure decisions.

The focus of this paper is to describe two lawsuits filed by the author under both Acts, and to illustrate both the potential of the Acts to obtain data from the Government, as well as the pitfalls a potential plaintiff faces when prosecuting the State for a violation of the Freedom of Information Act. These two lawsuits are Yeager v. Drug Enforcement Administration (1982) and Yeager v. Correctional Service of Canada (2001). As well, this methodological approach undoubtedly falls under more critical theories of criminology, such as conflict, radical, or critical perspectives, since mainstream researchers rarely resort to this technique.

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Updated 05/20/2006