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Milner v. Department of the Navy

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Documents
  • Date of Decision
    March 7, 2011
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Reversed and Remanded
  • Case Number
    09-1163
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Administrative Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information
  • Tags
    National Security, RTI law

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Exemption 2, which protects from disclosure material “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency” does not apply to military explosives data and maps because Exemption 2 covers strictly human resource matters. The Respondent Department of the Navy refused requests for explosives data and maps on the basis that disclosure would threaten the security of the base and surrounding community. The Court reasoned that the exemption to disclosure relied on by the Respondent in no way covered the explosives maps and data requested. However the Court also acknowledged the Navy’s strong security interest in preventing  the disclosure of such information and suggested that it could use other available exemptions, in particular Exemption 7 which applies to “information compiled for law enforcement purposes” if its release “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual”.

This case analysis was contributed by Right2Info.org.


Facts

In 2003 and 2004, local resident Glen Milner submitted FOIA requests for explosives data and maps used by the Department of the Navy in storing munitions at a Naval Bases. Milner, an activist, was seeking the documents as part of an investigation into the potential threats to public safety by the use of explosives during training exercises on Indian Island in Washington state and their storage at nearby bases. The Navy denied the request, invoking “Exemption 2” (5 U.S.C. Art. 552(b)(2)), which protects from disclosure material “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency”. Based on this exemption, the Navy argued that disclosure would threaten the security of the base and its surrounding community. After the district court ruled in favor of the Navy, dismissing the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.


Decision Overview

The Supreme Court ruled that the Navy was not justified in withholding the explosive maps and data requested because Exemption 2 applies only to records relating to employee relations and human resources issues. The Court, however, stated that other exemptions may be applicable.

The Supreme Court considered both the language of the FOIA statute and its legislative history in finding that a narrow definition of the word “personnel” applied in Exemption 2 so that withholding of information was only justified if it referred strictly to human resources matters (e.g. a “personnel department deals with employee problems and interviews applicants for jobs”). The Navy offered a broader reading of this exemption, which would have also covered “predominantly internal” materials whose disclosure would “significantly ris[k] circumvention of agency regulations or statutes,” as well as any information “for personnel”.

The Court acknowledged that the Navy has a strong security interest in shielding this kind of data from public disclosure, but that it had other available tools such as those found at Exemptions 1, 3, and 7 concerning access to classified documents, records that any other statute exempts from disclosure, and information compiled for law enforcement purposes, respectively. The Supreme Court directed that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a subsequent review, might consider the applicability of Exemption 7, which protects “information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . [if its release] could reasonably be expected to endanger the life of physical safety of an individual”.


Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

While the Supreme Court upheld a narrow interpretation of “personnel rules and practices”, it also acknowledged the Navy’s strong security interest in preventing  the disclosure of explosive maps and data and suggested that the Navy could use other available exemptions, in particular Exemption 7 which applies to “information compiled for law enforcement purposes” if its release “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual”.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Freedom of Information Act, art. 552(b)(2)
  • U.S., EPA v. Mink, 410 U. S. 73, 79 (1973)
  • U.S., FBI v. Abramson, 456 U. S. 615, 630 (1982)
  • U.S., Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352 (1976)
  • U.S., Crooker v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, 670 F. 2d 1051 (1981)
  • U.S., Massey v. FBI, 3 F. 3d 620, 622 (CA2 1993)
  • U.S., Kaganove v. EPA, 856 F. 2d 884, 889 (CA7 1988)
  • U.S., Schiller v. NLRB, 964 F. 2d 1205, 1208 (CADC 1992).
  • U.S., Park ‘N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park & Fly, Inc., 469 U.S. 189 (1985)
  • U.S., Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U. S. 135
  • U.S., United States Department of Justice v. Tax Analysts, 492 U.S. 136 (1989)
  • U.S., Department of Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Assn., 532 U. S. 1, 7–8 (2001)
  • U.S., Department of Justice v. Landano, 508 U. S. 165, 181 (1993)
  • U.S., Mead Corp. v. Tilley, 490 U. S. 714, 723 (1989)
  • U.S., Elliott v. Department of Agriculture, 596 F. 3d 842
  • U.S., Wong Yang Sung v. McGrath, 339 U. S. 33
  • U.S., TRW Inc. v. Andrews, 534 U. S. 19 (2001)
  • U.S., Audubon Society v. Forest Serv., 104 F. 3d 1201

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

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