Professor KC Johnson Sues over Violation of FOIA by Education Department

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Liberty Unyielding on March 28, 2022, and is republished here with permission.


Under the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies are supposed to respond to records requests within 20 working days, and hand over the records “promptly” thereafter, if they aren’t exempt from disclosure. But rather than doing that, they frequently violate FOIA. A classic example is how the Department of Education treated the well-known author and historian KC Johnson, who has written extensively about campus civil-liberties and civil-rights issues, and how college and civil-rights officials handle allegations of sexual harassment and assault. So today, I filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf.

Professor Johnson submitted a straightforward FOIA request on October 27 for the emails of the head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, Catherine Lhamon. The request was limited to emails she exchanged with 14 people and an advocacy group, Know Your IX.

Five months and over 100 working days have passed, but still, the Education Department has not issued Professor Johnson a determination, much less produced any of the emails he requested. The Department has no possible basis for withholding the records — they were exchanged with people outside the government, so the deliberative process privilege does not apply (that privilege is the most common reason for agencies to withhold records).

Even if it had any reason to withhold the records in whole or in part, the Education Department still had to make a determination about whether to release the records within 20 working days, and explain it to Professor Johnson. As the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals explained in CREW v. FEC (2013), agencies must “inform the requester of the scope of the documents that the agency will produce, as well as the scope of the documents that the agency plans to withhold under any FOIA exemptions” within the statutory deadline of 20 working days.

When the 20-day deadline elapsed, the Education Department sent Professor Johnson not the required determination, but instead a letter stating that it would not be able to meet the 20-day deadline due to “unusual circumstances.” It erroneously claimed that the “scope of your FOIA requests requires the Department to conduct a vast search across multiple program offices, which we anticipate will result in a large amount of responsive records.”

But “unusual circumstances” did not exist to justify any delay in responding to Professor Johnson’s request. Professor Johnson’s FOIA request sought emails sent or received by a single high-ranking official, the head of the Office for Civil Rights, which could presumably be found in a single email account in a single program office, the Office for Civil Rights. Moreover, the “amount of responsive records” sought by his request were smaller than many other FOIA requests, such as those seeking all of an agency official’s emails over a specified period, rather than just emails exchanged with a limited number of people, as was the case with Professor Johnson’s request.

When I worked in the Education Department, all of my emails were requested by journalists — literally thousands of pages — but the Education Department did not claim that “unusual circumstances” existed to delay their production, even though the people requesting my emails did not limit their FOIA requests to communications with particular people, the way Professor Johnson’s narrower FOIA request did.

Professor Johnson’s request is of a more modest sort than many FOIA requests that weren’t deemed to involve “unusual circumstances.” For example, FOIA requests related to agency rulemakings can result in thousands of pages of draft regulations and annotated comments falling within their reach. Such FOIA requests require time-consuming redactions and document review, yet the Education Department has responded to requests for such policymaking records without citing “unusual circumstances.”

[Related: “Seventeen Years—And Still Waiting!”]

By contrast, the Education Department will not need to carefully review the records sought by Professor Johnson on a line-by-line basis, because records exchanged with people outside an agency (like the advocacy group named in Professor Johnson’s request) are, by definition, not exempt from disclosure, due to the fact that sharing a document outside the government waives the deliberative process privilege even for highly sensitive documents. So it will be easy to process and release the records that Professor Johnson seeks.

Because the emails he seeks are not privileged, they will not be that voluminous, either. If you send a draft agency policy outside the government, it loses its privileged status, as a court reminded an agency in Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science and Technology Policy (2016), forcing the agency to turn over to me a draft agency position it shared with an academic.

So agency officials usually don’t attach draft regulations or other lengthy draft policies to emails they send people outside the agency. Instead, they meet those people in person to discuss agency policy, or discuss it by phone. Their emails to people outside the government often provide hints of what policies they are developing, but usually not in great detail or with great specificity.

As a result, Professor Johnson’s request, which involved communications with people outside the agency, is unlikely to lead to an especially large “amount of responsive records,” especially compared to many FOIA requests that the Education Department has responded without even claiming there are “unusual circumstances” justifying a delay.

The delay in responding to Professor Johnson’s request is particularly unjustified because the emails he seeks were potentially newsworthy, and could shed valuable light on how government policy was made. Agencies sometimes respond to newsworthy FOIA requests on the very day they are received, rather than waiting 20 days to respond to them — like the Justice Department’s response to New York Times reporter Charlie Savage’s FOIA request about Justice Department political hiring, or the Office for Civil Rights’ response to a FOIA request when I was working there in 2005.

As Professor Johnson noted,

the requested records involve correspondence between Lhamon and key figures outside the executive branch—activists, legislators, staffers, and one ex-journalist—who advocated for complainant rights during this period. Correspondence with Lhamon might reveal how she framed her intentions with a sympathetic audience. In this respect
1. The subject matter of the requested records themselves specifically concern identifiable “operations or activities of the government”—in this case, the Obama administration’s approach to what Title IX required of colleges and universities as they adjudicated student-on-student sexual assault allegations.
2. The disclosable portions of the requested information would be meaningfully informative in relation to the subject matter of the request given how rarely Lhamon spoke with specificity regarding the justifications for her policies.
3. I have co-written a book (with Stuart Taylor, Jr.) and a law review article (with Samantha Harris) on Title IX and campus sexual assault. I have also written op-eds on the topic in, among other places, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. This material will appear in a law review article I am currently writing and, in all likelihood, in op-eds on Lhamon’s activities.
4. Given how rarely Lhamon spoke with specificity about the justifications for her policy discussions, the disclosure would “contribute significantly” to public understanding of how the Obama administration handled Title IX matters.

Professor Johnson’s FOIA request sought:

all emails between Catherine Lhamon and:
–Alexandra Brodsky
–Dana Bolger
–Brett Sokolow
–Kirsten Gillibrand
–Claire McCaskill
–Jackie Speier
–Brooke Jamison
–Sabrina Rubin Erdely
–Anna Laitin
–Know Your IX
–Laura Dunn
–Michele Dauber
–Wendy Murphy
–Michelle Anderson
–John Clune (Date Range for Record Search: From 06/01/2013 To 11/17/2016).


Image: Harold Shapiro, Public Domain

Hans Bader

Hans Bader is a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

5 thoughts on “Professor KC Johnson Sues over Violation of FOIA by Education Department

  1. I am not sure how much Professor Johnson would want to go into the personal history of one of the people Catharine Lhamon was emailing, but in case it is allowed, some background on Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber.
    Dauber generally tries to stay in the background, so it is hard to get biographical information on her – despite for example a laudatory article in the San Jose Mercury News about her – the paper actually refused to publish a lot of interesting things which might have given more insight into her motivations.
    A long time ago – I guess about 25 years back – Dauber and husband Ken Dauber went on kind of a internet crusade (message boards in those days) to try to get Michele’s older brother Michael Landis kicked out of a Sci Fi convention organization, because they said he was a pedophile who had raped Michele’s daughter. Eventually, they ended this campaign with one last post telling everyone to disregard all they had written before.. some folks speculated they were paid off – I have no info on why they stopped.
    About ten years after that, Dauber’s daughter Amanda committed suicide – she was a student at RISD – the bio on Dauber says she became involved in campus sexual assault about that time – without explaining WNY – even a tiny bit, seriously nothing – the article claims women would show up at Dauber’s office door crying and she would know they had been assaulted. I mean, even allowing for psychic abilities and white magic of some sort – wouldn’t the people who showed up be those who were suicidal, not assaulted?
    My personal belief is, Dauber attributes Amanda’s suicide to the alleged rape when she was 5, and that was what got her involved in the #MeToo movement – and obviously, at some point, if so many young women showed up at her door, she passed the word she wanted to advocate for them. And all indications are, her most successful advocacy, before Chanel Miller was for a woman who was a very angry scorned woman, who had not been assaulted at all – again, the local DA cleared the man completely.
    The Chanel Miller case involved a great deal of false narrative by Miller and Dauber – instead of a drunken hookup gone wrong, it was supposed to be a violent rape – Dauber went on Democraacy Now and claimed Miller was almost murdered – Miller claimed she’d had “pine needles and debris” “jabbed” into her – both 100% untrue,. Miller had no injuries at all – the worst that happened was the guy from the frat party rubbed against her with all his clothes on, after she MAY have passed out, knowingly. That is another, though closely related, story, because it seems very likely Dauber took over and managed the entire trial as kind of a media event to promote the cause- to those who find this very unlikely- you have to understand how extreme places like Stanford and Palo Alto are. I can detail it but it is a long story.
    To conclude- whether inspired by rage about her daugher’s suicide or not, Dauber is a fanatic in my view and I see no reason to think she cares if a man is innocent or not. The “but pirates were actually racist” tweet war is kind of a sign of a fanatic being in a fanatic echo chamber in my view – so, if Stanford can get people to think that illogically – why not also convict an innocent person?

  2. I think it is very likely Lhamon was in close contact with Stanford Professor Michele Dauber. Dauber organized a conference at Stanford Law called “The Way Forward, Title IX advocacy in the Trump Era” and Lhamon was listed as a speaker at the event – that was May 1-2, 2017 and it was controversial, on Stanford campus, because it was openly partisan, against Trump – which is a violation of 501(c)(3) law – they had a poster of Trump along with Billy Bush Dauber used to promote it – but Stanford objected, then caved to Dauber.
    Even more partisan, one of the first speakers advocated for impeachment of Trump – without giving any indication at all of what the legal basis would be.
    And the group sessions for discussing advocacy were limited to insiders, which again violated 501(c)(3) law.
    I think some public examination of Michele Dauber, lately being mocked for saying actual pirates, unlike the one Johnny Depp portrayed, were involved in the slave trade, is in order.
    My research indicates she is so fanatical that, in the words of Alan Dershowitz, she is one of those who believe the crime of rape is so serious, actual innocence should not be a defense – seriously, she reportedly was the adviser of Leah Francis at Stanford, who ran a public crusade against her former lover, claiming he raped her, when, per the local DA, he committed NO CRIME AT ALL – and all indications, IMO, were Francis was a scorned woman who felt rage over that – no reason at all to think the lover had done anything wrong – but Dauber wanted him expelled – I sincerely hope this issue will be raised to her by someone, some time.

  3. Thank you Professor Johnson for your hard work.

    These charlatans are grifters (especially Sokolow who is a despicable weasel profiting off of both sides) of the worst kind, and there collusion needs to be exposed.

  4. I would go beyond Brett Sokolow to include the organizatims he leads — ATIXA & NaBITA.

    For good measure, I’d include NASPA & ACPA.

    1. See- https://www.nabita.org/

      In particular see, https://www.nabita.org/events/talking-bits-april-22-2022/
      https://www.nabita.org/nabita-statement-on-florida-events/

      Over the past 10-15 years we have gone from Kangaroo Korts to Star Chambers and the cmcept of Thoughtcrime.

      No lmger is there the need of actual accusations, no matter how bogus — now it’s “threat assessment” and how someone MIGHT violate Title IX.

      This is why the BITs are so dangerous – it’s impossible to prove what one won’t do in the future, particularly in the absence of ane specifics as to what the “something” actually is…

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