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Introduction to the Freedom of Information Act

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We’ve received a lot of interest in our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. In response to the emails that we received, and in anticipation of Sunshine Week 2014, we’re preparing several blog posts on how to research and file a FOIA request and what to do when your request is denied or ignored. We will be writing about our own experiences, as well as inviting others to contribute their experiences and expertise.

A redacted FOIA request.
A heavily redacted FOIA request. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For now, here’s a bit of quick summary of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Freedom of Information Act was (grudgingly) signed into law in 1966 by President Johnson. Since then it has undergone a series of amendments, the most recent of which was in 2007. The act allows anyone (even those who are not U.S. citizens) to request an existing document from the relevant federal government agency. FOIA only applies to executive branch agencies, not judicial branch (courts) or legislative branch bodies (Congress and Senate).

FOIA creates a presumption of openness, but nine exemptions in the FOIA allow agencies to withhold some information - including classified information, documents that would reveal private information, confidential commercial information - from the public. FOIA requires that most requesters pay fees for search and/or duplication, but allows reduced fees for members of the media and educational institutions.

Under the FOIA, agencies have twenty business days to respond with a “determination.” That determination must include a statement of the agency’s decision regarding what will be disclosed and withheld, an explanation for any withholdings the agency is making, and information on how the requester can appeal. FOIA allows the requester to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the agency’s withholdings or failure to respond, but a lawsuit challenging withholdings can only be filed after a requester has appealed to the agency.

For requesters who don’t have the resources to sue, there are other remedies, including a complaint to the Office of Government Information Services, which we’ll discuss in later blog posts. We’ll be interviewing FOIA experts and practitioners for practical tips on how to deal with agency intransigence, how to optimize your chances for receiving a timely response, and how to minimize the fees you have to pay to obtain documents. So stay tuned to learn more!