Culture

Journalist's Response to Obama's Game of Thrones Privilege? FOIA.

The government's typical response to upstart journalists. YouTube Screenshot

At the season six premiere of Game of Thrones, HBO let it slip that President Obama is the only person guaranteed access to new screenings of the show. For millions of fans who want to know whether Jon Snow is really [SPOILER] for good, this just doesn’t seem fair. In our constitutional democratic republic, the people have ways to combat this naked executive privilege, and a journalist has exercised her rights in doing so.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens to request the federal government to release government information to the public. There are legal exceptions, but Game of Thrones spoilers are not among them. All the same, this request is likely to prove fruitless, because FOIAs typically take months — and even years — to process. Vanessa Golembewski, a reporter with Refinery29, filed the FOIA request on Friday, April 15. 

Golembewski laid out her reasoning in a post:

I decided this was a perfect opportunity to test the limits of the Freedom Of Information Act. If the president — and by extension, our government — is in possession of a file, surely that file is subject to my request to see it as a U.S. citizen.

I know it’s a stretch. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure where the Game of Thrones screeners fall in the grey area that is personal property of a government figure. Secondly, there’s a bunch of red tape around the kinds of things you can request in a FOIA. Okay, fine. There are just nine exemptions — and all of them seem like really fair calls. For example, it’s off limits if the information in question would threaten our national security. I felt confident that even with these rules, TV episodes were still fair game.

Even if a government agency takes this request seriously (and the journalist has listed many reasons why it likely won’t), Golembewski will likely have to wait far longer than she would have if she had just watched HBO. Game of Thrones season six airs this coming Sunday, April 24.

Nine days would likely be a record for a FOIA request processing, so let’s be reasonable. The show’s tenth episode will air on June 26, which would give the Freedom of Information Act office 51 business days. Non-profits which file FOIAs for a living often have to wait years to see the fruits of their labor.

Maybe with a simple request like this one, Golembewski can hope, but in all likelihood it will be 2017 before she hears a response, and likely her request will be denied.

Next Page: Good reasons to think her request will be flat-out denied.

While Golembewski is correct that national security is the number one exemption to the Freedom of Information Act, there are others. Some of these might even apply to her Game of Thrones request.

Exemption four lists “trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.” Uh oh, that sounds like an early screening… and that is exactly Golembewski’s point — Obama is privileged to see these episodes. While that is unfair, it is “commercial information,” and it might be off-limits to FOIA.

Exemption six might be a bit more of a stretch. FOIA does not apply to “information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.” While “trade secrets” is a much more likely exemption, it could be argued that Obama’s interest in Game of Thrones is personal, as is showrunner Dan Weiss’s decision to give him the screenings.

Nevertheless, Golembewski is committed, and it may not be wise to cross her. Westeros hath no fury as a Khaleesi scorned.