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Argus Leader Denied Food Stamp Data By SCOTUS

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

The US Supreme Court is siding with businesses and the federal government Monday in a ruling about the public’s access to information. That ruling tells the Sioux Falls Argus Leader it can’t have data related to federal food assistance.

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.

Jonathan Ellis is a reporter for the Argus Leader. He says the ruling is a big hit to Freedom of Information Act requests when public money goes to private businesses.

“It’s going to allow businesses to decide whether they think—they’re going to be able to decide now, if they say something is confidential, then it’s confidential,” Ellis says. “They’ll decide—information that was routinely available to tax payers—they will have the decision now, a greater decision, deciding whether to withhold that information. So, it was a very bad day for transparency in federal government.”

Ellis says the paper had several story ideas in the works had they received the data, including mapping food deserts in South Dakota and identifying instances of food stamp fraud.

“A lot of that is committed by businesses and not necessarily people on the program, but actually businesses profiting on the program," Ellis says. "We felt that there were some data analysis tools we could use here internally in the news room to find instances of fraud.”

Ellis says the information would have identified biggest profiteers in the SNAP program.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for a six-member majority of the court that at "least where commercial or financial information is…treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy," the information should not be disclosed.

He says the SNAP data qualified.