The Freedom of Information Act: What It Is and How To Request Records
The U.S. Constitution and its amendments afford Americans a number of rights and freedoms — to speak as we want, to keep and bear arms, to practice a religion of our choosing. Another such right is that of staying informed about the goings-on in our government by requesting copies of open records kept by any federal agency.
Although the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) wasn’t passed until 1967, some 175 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, it has quickly taken its place among the fundamental freedoms that we enjoy as American citizens.
The Freedom of Information Act came about amid heightened U.S. secrecy following the Cold War and the country’s involvement in the Vietnam war. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Representative John Moss (D-California), initially had to overcome some opposition from President Lyndon B. Johnson and a number of government agencies, who feared that greater transparency into government activity would threaten national security. Nevertheless, House members voted 307-0 to pass the bill in 1966, and Johnson signed it into law on July 4th of that year.
The Act required that all federal agencies make their records available to the general public. It also set forth the process by which citizens could appeal if they were denied access to those records, and made the agencies themselves prove their right to withhold or conceal information from the public.
Exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act
Nine exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act were built into it from the very beginning, to stipulate certain types of information that need not be released. The exact language of the nine exemptions can be found in the official FOIA document. These include:
Classified national defense and foreign relations information
Internal agency personnel rules and practices
Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law
Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person that is privileged or confidential
Inter- or intra-agency memoranda or letters that are protected by legal privileges
Personnel, medical, financial, and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy
Certain types of information compiled for law enforcement purposes
Records that are contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of any agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions
Geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells
Exclusions to the Freedom of Information Act
In addition, there are three exclusions. Any records that fall within these exclusions are not subject to the FOIA’s requirements. They are as follows:
(c)(1) Exclusion: Subject of a criminal investigation or proceeding is unaware of the existence of records concerning the pending investigation or proceeding and disclosure of such records would interfere with the investigation or proceeding.
(c)(2) Exclusion: Informant records maintained by a criminal law enforcement agency and the individual's status as an informant is not known.
(c)(3) Exclusion: Existence of FBI foreign intelligence, counterintelligence or international terrorism records are classified fact.
Other Information Not Covered by the FOIA
Lastly, there are several other types of information that do not fall under the Freedom of Information Act, and therefore do not require a request. Information regarding copyright registration, as well as information concerning statutory licensing of audio-visual materials and the broadcasting thereof, are available for the asking. Governmental policy reports, Congressional testimony, Federal Register notices, and other materials are also readily available and consumers do not need to file a FOIA request to obtain them.
Filing a FOIA Request
It’s important to understand that the Freedom of Information Act does not guarantee the public’s right to access any record they choose. It provides them the right to request records, the right to receive an answer, and the right to appeal a denial. There is nothing in the Act that says federal agencies are obliged to hand over any and all of its records.
Before filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, it’s a smart idea to ascertain that the information you seek is not available elsewhere. This will save time and hassle. Federal agencies post a great deal of information, including open records, on their websites, so a search there or through the FOIA.gov is the first step. Inputting search terms on the Freedom of Information Act website will search all government websites at once.
There are some additional sources to check before submitting a request. Agencies may make records available through the following outlets:
● The Government Printing Office
● The National Technical Information Office
● Electronic “Reading Rooms”
● The National Archives and Records Administration
● The Library of Congress
As you can see, there are many resources available where a citizen can search for the information they are seeking. If it still cannot be located, then a FOIA request should be filed.
There are only two general requirements for making a request. The request must be in writing, and it must “reasonably describe” the information being sought. This stands to reason, since the more accurate and thorough a request, the better the odds of receiving the correct information.
While there is no specific form for requesting records, requirements vary by agency. Some, but not all, agencies accept online requests; to find out if a certain agency does, use this online tool to begin the process. Otherwise, requests can be submitted by mail, email, or fax.
Citizens may specify whether they would like the information in electronic or printed form.
Response time depends on many factors: the complexity of the request and whether or not there is a backlog of requests at the same agency. Requests are generally, but not always, answered in the order in which they were received. The FOIA Requester Service Center can answer any questions about the status of a request.