SD Newspaper Goes to Supreme Court After FOIA Complications

The fight between the media and the federal government continues after a South Dakota newspaper was denied information regarding the food assistance program, or food stamps, by the Department of Agriculture, leading to a judicial battle that will end up in the Supreme Court on Monday, April 22.

According to the Associated Press, the story began in the Summer of 2010, when a newspaper in South Dakota called Argus Leader wanted to write a series of stories regarding the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in an attempt to not only “[know] how our government is operating” but also to “[know] what government is doing with our tax money.” Argus Leader assumed this would be a routine request that would cause no problems with the USDA.

Things went south, however, when the department sent back information regarding who accepted SNAP benefits at their stores, but not how much stores have received each year from the program.

Close to nine years and several court hearing later, the newspaper still struggles to get the information they need, in part because of a supermarket trade association that has tried to block them at every turn.

Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute, an association representing supermarkets chains and grocery stores around the country, fought back against Argus Leader, saying that the information they sought is confidential. The FMI stated in court documents that the public already knows enough about the SNAP program from where it is accepted and how many Americans receive it. SNAP sales by store, however, is confidential “much the same way how much business grocers do in cash, credit, debit, checks or even gift cards is confidential,” according to a blog post written by the CEO of the institute Leslie G. Sarasin last month.

This case will do more than mediate a dispute between the press and the government; it will also set a precedent on how the Freedom of Information Act is to be interpreted in the future. This case is likely to lead to a very narrow majority as it will be up to the court to decide what is defined as “confidential,” especially when it comes to government programs.

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