In the face of a lawsuit, the Department of Education has backed down from a decision to charge the nonprofit organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy thousands of dollars to provide it with information about the number and location of college students affected by the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision. The organization had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to seek a state-by-state breakdown of the number of college students denied financial aid because of drug convictions.
While the Department of Education provided aggregate numbers of students affected by the drug provision -- nearly 200,000 so far -- SSDP asked for state-by-state numbers to more accurately assess the provision's local impact and to be able to more effectively lobby representatives by being able to present them with figures showing the impact on their districts. But Education balked at that request, demanding that SSDP pay $4,000 to obtain the data.
Under the law, federal agencies must waive fees for providing such information if it is in the public interest. But the department bizarrely argued that the fee should not be waived because providing the information was not in the public interest but could instead further the commercial interests of those who might profit from the legalization of drugs.
That position was scorned by Freedom of Information Act specialists when it was announced. "This decision by the Department of Education sounds very imaginative. I guess that's the polite way to put it," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, which has long experience dealing with FOIA requests. "Another way to put it is that it sounds completely spurious. SSDP is not an entity poised to go into the drug dealing business, thus there will be no evidence to support that claim," he told DRCNet. "The decision to deny the waiver should be firmly appealed," said Aftergood. "It sounds like an abuse of the fee waiver provisions to avoid responding to the request, and the fee Education is demanding is prohibitively high for a nonprofit organization."
SSDP decided to fight back and turned to the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen to represent it in the lawsuit it filed. Faced with having to defend its determination in court, the Department of Education last week instead gave up. It agreed to waive the fee and provide the data by today.
"We're very glad they decided not to go forward with the litigation," said Public Citizen's Adina Rosenbaum, the attorney prepared to argue the case. "It was frustrating that we had to bring a lawsuit in order for SSDP to get the fees waived. We think the original fee denial was erroneous and now we see the Department of Education thinks it wasn't worth trying to defend their original determination in court."
"The department did the smart thing in giving up rather than facing us in a losing court battle," said SSDP communications director Tom Angell. "It was a pretty cut and dry case. Their position was indefensible, as evidenced by their giving up so easily. They thought they could bully a small nonprofit like SSDP into giving up, but once we took them to court they realized they had to change their strategy."
"Next time federal officials want to stifle a group whose message they don't like, they'll have to think of a much better excuse," said Kris Krane, executive director of SSDP. "Federal bureaucrats thought students would give up easily in our quest to reveal the disastrous impact this punitive drug war policy has on our generation. They were wrong."
SSDP should have the information in hand this week and will use it to issue a report on the local impact of the HEA drug provision, said Angell. "Until now, it's been easy for lawmakers to brush aside this national number of 200,000 people affected, but now we can show them how many of their own constituents are having their lives ruined by a policy they are doing nothing to fix," he said. "This is going to make it harder for them to continue to ignore the drug provision."