Monday, January 30, 2006

SSDP v. DoE gets press

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered SSDP's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education. I'm pasting the full piece below because you need a password to view it on the Chronicle's website.

Lawsuit Accuses Education Dept. of Unfairly Withholding Data on Drug
Offenders and Student Aid


A drug-reform advocacy group sued the U.S. Education Department on
Thursday, accusing agency officials of blocking the release of
information about how many students in each state have been denied
federal financial aid because they have been convicted of drug offenses.

According to the U.S. Education Department, a total of 175,000 students
have had their aid stripped since 2000, when the agency began enforcing
a law that bars those who are convicted of possessing or selling illicit
drugs from receiving federal grants or loans for college.

In December 2004, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a nonprofit
organization with college and high-school chapters, sent a Freedom of
Information Act request to the department asking for a state-by-state
breakdown of students affected by the ban. In June 2005, the department
agreed to provide the data but denied the group's request to waive a
processing fee.

The group, known as SSDP, learned that it would have to pay about $4,100
to the agency before it could obtain the information it was seeking. In
the lawsuit it filed on Thursday in the federal district court here, the
organization is asking the court to require the department to provide
the records without any charge.

At issue is whether the organization's request met the government's
criteria to receive a waiver: that the release of the information "is in
the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to
public understanding of the operations or activities of the government
and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester."

In a letter to the organization in September, Michell Clark, the
department's acting chief information officer, explained his rationale
for denying the waiver request. He said that he did not believe the
release of the data would "contribute meaningfully or significantly to
the general public's understanding of the subject of your request."

He explained that the data requested would provide only a partial answer
to the group's question. That's because, he said, the organization had
asked for information on only those students who had lost their aid
because they had acknowledged -- in answer to a question on the
financial-aid application form -- that they had been convicted of a drug
offense. The group's request, however, did not ask for data on students
who had become ineligible for financial aid because they had refused to
respond to the question.

"The information in question will not, by itself, show how many people
the law affects and how many people are ineligible for student aid
because of it," Mr. Clark wrote.

Mr. Clark also said that he believed that the data would benefit
Students for Sensible Drug Policy financially. "The principal goal of
your organization is to 'end the war on drugs,'" he wrote. "As SSDP's
campaign could directly benefit those who would profit from the
deregulation or legalization of drugs, I cannot conclude, based on the
information you have made available to me, that SSDP has no commercial
interest in the disclosure sought."

In the lawsuit the leaders of the advocacy group rejected the arguments
that the release of the information wouldn't be in the public interest
and that the group would profit from it. They asserted that, by refusing
to waive the fee, Bush administration officials are hoping to prevent
the group from gaining access to data that could be used to fight the
existing policy. The administration supports the denial of aid to
students who are convicted of drug offenses while in college.

The group's leaders said that the release of the data is clearly in the
public interest as it will provide greater information to lawmakers
about how the law is affecting their constituents. They also argued
that, as a nonprofit, the organization "could not use the information
for monetary gain or commercial advantage."

"It is no big surprise that the government is afraid to reveal the true
impact of its punitive drug-war policies," Scarlett Swerdlow, the
organization's executive director, who's departing from the top position
next week, stated in a news release. "If citizens and legislators knew
how this misguided and ineffective policy impacts their communities, we
would be much closer to erasing it from the law books."

A budget-cutting bill that Congress is expected to approve next week
would soften the student-aid restriction. That measure would allow the
government to deny student aid only to applicants convicted of
drug-related offenses committed while they were attending college. Now
students can be penalized for convictions that occurred as long as a
year or two before they actually enroll.

But the leaders of Students for Sensible Drug Policy said they would not
be satisfied with anything less than a full repeal of the law.

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