Courthouse News Service
March 14, 2014
by Jamie Ross
WASHINGTON (CN) - A professor won her bid for government records revealing the names and addresses of landowners whose properties might be affected by the Texas-Mexico border fence.
"Revealing the identities of landowners in the wall's planned construction site may shed light on the impact on indigenous communities, the disparate impact on lower-income minority communities, and the practices of private contractors," U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled Friday.
The information was requested by Denise Gilman, a clinical professor at the University of Texas-Austin School of Law researching the human-rights impact of the border fence.
A federal law passed in 2006 ordered the construction of a fence or wall along portions of the U.S.-Mexico border. It mandated reinforced fencing along at least 700 miles of the southwest border, but left the specific location up to the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2009, Gilman filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records detailing where the government planned to build parts of the wall and what information it was using to decide where to build.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released thousands of documents, but redacted certain information, including the names and addresses of landowners.
Gilman challenged the government's redactions, arguing that the public interest in how the wall would impact landowners outweighed any privacy concerns of private landowners.
She said the information would help the public understand the size of the wall and the agency's decisions about where to place it, including whether U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was treating property owners fairly.
The CBP insisted that disclosure put the landowners' privacy rights at risk, and they faced unwanted contact from "the media, other members of the public, including other landowners involved in a similar process, and potential harassment."
Howell agreed with Gilman that "the public interest in learning how CBP negotiated with private citizens regarding the planning and construction of the border wall is significant."
"This public interest outweighs the privacy interest in landowners' names and addresses in CBP emails," she wrote.
However, she said the agency doesn't have to disclose emails relating to its assessment of the need for fencing, as information in the emails reveals areas that are patrolled by fewer Border Patrol agents due to their difficulty to patrol.
"Such information discloses the CBP's operations and vulnerabilities, which are not readily-accessible public information, the disclosure of which could risk appropriation to circumvent the law," Howell wrote.
Also, if Gilman seeks email attachments excluded from the records she received, she must file a new Freedom of Information Act request to receive them, the judge concluded.
"The schedule on which CBP was required to release records to the plaintiff is set out in the second clause and was thus a separate requirement from the scope of the responsive records set out in the first clause," Howell wrote.