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Justices side with business, government in information fight

SFGate Monday, 24 June 2019
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court sided with businesses and the U.S. government Monday in a ruling about the public’s access to information, telling a South Dakota newspaper it can’t get the data it was seeking.

Open government and reporters groups described the ruling against the Argus Leader newspaper as a setback, but it was not clear how big its impact will ultimately be.

The paper was seeking to learn how much money goes annually to every store nationwide that participates in the government’s $65 billion-a-year food assistance program, previously known as food stamps.

Reporters at the paper, which is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett, asked the federal government in 2011 to provide information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Officials initially declined to provide all the information reporters were seeking. In response, the paper sued, arguing that the store-level data the government declined to provide is public and shows citizens how the government is spending their tax money.

The government lost in a lower court and decided not to appeal. But a supermarket trade association, the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute, stepped in to continue the fight with the backing of the Trump administration, arguing that the information is confidential and should not be disclosed.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for a six-member majority of the court that at “least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy,” the information should not be disclosed. He said the SNAP data qualified.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissent joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor that he feared “the majority’s reading will deprive the public of information for...
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