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#Journo100 Finalist: Theo Karantsalis’ FOIA frenzy

To highlight the wide diversity of journalism innovation projects proposed by our 100% Journalism finalists, we’re running short Q & As with our ten finalists. 

Theo KarantsalisBy day, Theo Karantsalis works as associate director of learning resources at Miami Dade College. By night, he freelances for newspapers including The Miami Herald,  Miami New Times and the River Cities Gazette, often filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to gain access to crucial information and following up with a lawsuit when his request is denied. In one instance earlier this year, Karantsalis and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that all mug shots should be public record. He spent $800 on out-of-pocket filing fees and ultimately saw the petition denied.

However, that setback hasn’t stopped Karantsalis from fighting for journalists’ access to information. In his entry, Karantsalis proposed a “FOIA frenzy” by freelance journalists around the U.S. with Karantsalis acting as grant-maker and supervising editor, based on his long track record of using the law to access information.

Ebyline recently chatted with Karantsalis about his idea for journalism innovation. Excerpts from that conversation follow. 

What sparked your interest in doing a FOIA frenzy?

I think it’s because we all have a right to know what our government is up to, and the FOIA process allows us to tell stories that otherwise might not ever get told.

What impact do you hope to have? How might this project help change journalism or the wider world?

The average reader doesn’t realize the roadblocks that we face to get access to government information. There are nine readily used exemptions that preclude agencies from releasing data and they’re very, very good at using them. There comes a point where the only chance we have to get information is to litigate, and that keeps a lot of freelancers from telling stories. It’s very expensive, so information gets suppressed, and the reader loses.

However, if the reporter has the means to follow up with the lawsuit, the agency will more closely consider its position, especially when it knows it may have to defend it in courts now. So the Ebyline resources would allow other similarly situated freelancers to keep government secrecy in check, and we can dig a bit deeper to shed light on government policies and abuses that would otherwise remain hidden from public knowledge.

Do staffers have an easier time fighting those exemptions? Do their editors and publishers support them?

I’ve never once had an editor authorize any type of a budget for me to pursue a FOIA matter. On the contrary, every single one, every case that I’ve submitted has been denied, so it’s incumbent on us, the freelancers, because you know we don’t have much. Budgets are real tight, and we have to be very, very passionate about a particular issue if we’re going to follow up. In my case, just the filing fee could be as much as what I would earn doing five to ten stories, just to put it in perspective. I have a current case now against the Navy and some of these cases can take years.

How would you choose the freelancers to participate?

Originality. Again, something that they’re incredibly passionate about. For example, with my current case against the U.S. Navy, when I was 11 years old, I witnessed a jet crash in Alameda, California. We were simply told that the pilot got fidgety and lit up a cigarette. And the entire town of seventy thousand people bought the story. But I was a newspaper carrier for The Oakland Tribune, and I remember looking at the paper, reading this, and it didn’t make sense to me that a fighter jet zooming along faster than the speed of sound, the guy just casually lights up a smoke and it starts a fire.

But to get answers to this, what the average reader may not realize, I had to spend years of filing requests, years of administrative appeals, and it finally reaches a point to where I need to cough up about $350 for the filing fee for the other side to take me seriously. And that’s my point with this. Just a $350 filing fee, in most cases it could stimulate a release, and in many cases it will, and the reader will benefit.