A federal judge has ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to give her a better explanation for its refusal to turn over information to a student researching an alleged plot to assassinate “Occupy” protest leaders in Houston.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student who is seeking records from the FBI related to a Houston spin-off of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests and an alleged sniper plot. The student claims that the heavily redacted responses he got back from the government violated the Freedom of Information Act.
Information about the alleged plot first surfaced in FBI documents — released through a prior FOIA request by a civil-rights legal organization in Washington – that referenced a “plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles,” according to court documents. It’s not known who was behind the alleged plot or whether the FBI investigated it.
In a ruling last week, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the FBI to explain with more detail why it claims that certain information requested by the student, Ryan Noah Shapiro, is exempted under FOIA.
The law governing the public’s access to records allows the FBI to shield “information compiled for law enforcement purposes” if disclosure would interfere with an investigation, endanger life or cause other types of harm.
That exemption was repeatedly cited by FBI FOIA chief David Hardy in a filing to the court in support of an FBI motion to dismiss Mr. Shapiro’s lawsuit. Some information was redacted, according to Mr. Hardy’s filing, because it involved information shared with local law enforcement agencies related to an investigation of “potential criminal activity by protestors involved with the ‘Occupy’ movement in Houston.” He stated that the potential crimes included “domestic terrorism” and “advocating overthrow of government.”
Judge Collyer said that justification wasn’t sufficient.
“At no point does Mr. Hardy supply specific facts as to the basis for FBI’s belief that the Occupy protestors might have been engaged in terroristic or other criminal activity,” she wrote. “Neither the word ‘terrorism’ nor the phrase ‘advocating the overthrow of the government’ are talismanic, especially where FBI purports to be investigating individuals who ostensibly are engaged in protected First Amendment activity.”
She asked the the FBI to get back to her with a more specific explanation by April 9. The judge is allowing the FBI to file its response under seal.
Jeffrey Louis Light, an attorney representing Mr. Shapiro, told Law Blog that he was puzzled why the FBI seemed to be focusing on investigating the protesters and not the alleged assassination plot.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which is representing the FBI in the case, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
March 18, 2014, 7:41 PM ET
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