The Freedom of Information Act
- 1966: Enacted by Congress
- 1996: Amended to encompass electronic records
The Freedom of Information Act, commonly known as FOIA, was enacted by Congress in 1966 to give the American public greater access to the federal government's records. The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 expanded the scope of the FOIA to encompass electronic records and require the creation of "electronic reading rooms" to make records more easily and widely available to the public.
- All 15 federal departments (Education, Homeland Security)
- 73 federal agencies (EPA, Federal Reserve, FCC)
FOIA applies to all 15 departments (Education, Homeland Security, etc.) and 73 other federal agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Reserve System) in the executive branch of the U.S. government. It does not apply to the president, Congress, or the courts. It does not apply to state governments (though each of the 50 states has its own freedom-of-information laws, as do many cities; see New York State procedures).
Three Basic Steps
- Creating a request
- Determining appropriate agency
- Submit request
Most FOIA requests must be submitted in writing, although some agencies now allow for electronically submitted requests. You will likely need to contact multiple agencies (see Step 2), so it's a good idea to create a request template that you can customize as needed. In your template, list the following information:
- Clearly state that the letter constitutes a FOIA request. Put the word "FOIA" in the subject line and also in the very first sentence of your letter. For example, "This letter constitutes a FOIA request. I am requesting information on..."
- Clearly describe the records that you are requesting, and note that you are only interested in releasable information
Because there is no central repository for federal records, you'll need to have a good idea about where the information is located before you can file a FOIA request. To start, review the contact information for of all the federal agencies that regularly field FOIA requests (see the link in the Resource section below). If you know that you're looking for information on a military program, for instance, check the listings for the various agencies listed under Department of Defense. You might need to contact several to obtain the records you'd like. If possible, telephone the FOIA POC prior to filing your request to make sure that they are an appropriate agency.
Take a look at the sample letter attached at the bottom of this page for further inspiration.
The Small Print
- Time frame
Agencies are allowed to charge for research and productions services. Your FOIA request should specify the amount of FOIA fees you are willing to pay. One way around this is to file a request as a researcher or journalist, if applicable - fees are typically waived, or only charged for duplication for educational institutions, representatives of the news media and non-commercial scientific institutions.
Once the right agency (or component of an agency) has received a complete and perfected request, it has 20 working days to respond with its determination of whether to grant the request. If information is denied in full or in part, the agency must give the reasons for the denial by this deadline. If granted, it does not have to deliver the applicable documents within the timeframe, but must do so promptly thereafter.
A lot of times, agencies will encourage you to be as specific as possible when filing a request. And although you do want to give the institutions as much guidance as possible on the documents you're requesting, also be aware that too much specificity can give them a way not to file your request. For example, requesting from Tuscon's school board information about book banning can be denied because books weren't banned, they were boxed up and moved.
- "A Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records." Detailed, user-friendly guide prepared by the Committee on Government Reform and published by the Government Printing Office.
- The Citizen Access Project website includes the texts of all freedom-of-information laws enacted in each of the 50 states. It also provides contacts for local organizations involved with open-government issues.
- "How to Use the Federal FOI Act." Excellent guide prepared by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Geared specifically toward journalists.
- For a discussion of current case-law interpretations of the exemptions, see the 2009 "Justice Department Guide to the Freedom of Information Act."
- Each federal agency compiles an annual report detailing its compliance with FOIA that lists the basis for each request denied during the year. The DOJ keeps all departments' and agencies' annual reports on its website.
Question from a participant: Is there a single database of FOIA requests?
No, the records management of each agency would handle their relevant requests. And once the FOIA request is filled, that doesn't mean the data becomes publicly available; it just goes straight to the person who made the request.
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