- What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?
FOIA is a federal statute that allows any
person or company the right to obtain federal agency records
unless the records (or part of the records) are protected
from disclosure by any of the nine exemptions in the
lawEnsures. The exemptions generally include instances where
the disclosure violates the right to privacy, national
security, or certain other instances. Related state
disclosure laws are often referred to as the Sunshine Acts
which stipulates that certain government agencies
announce and open their meetings to the public.
- What Records Are Available?
The Federal Freedom
of Information Act applies to documents held by agencies of
the executive branch of the Federal Government. The
executive branch includes cabinet departments, military
departments, government corporations, government controlled
corporations, independent regulatory agencies, and other
establishments in the executive branch.
The law ensures the protection of the
public's right to access public records.
- What Records Are Excluded?
The Freedom of Information ACT Exemptions are relatively
vague and often abused by government agencies. When an
exemption is claimed, an appeal may be necessary. The
(1) classified national defense and foreign relations
(2) internal agency rules and practices,
(3) information that is prohibited from disclosure by
(4) trade secrets and other confidential business
(5) inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are
protected by legal privileges,
(6) information involving matters of personal privacy,
(7) certain information compiled for law enforcement
(8) information relating to the supervision of financial
(9) geological information on wells.
The three exclusions, which are
rarely used, pertain to especially sensitive law enforcement
and national security matters.
Why Would Anyone Request
The use of FOIA laws is almost unlimited. However common
uses are also well documented. Records of government
actions or investigations may provide insight into:
- Investment decisions. Investigations of
companies may highlight problems for investors. This
would have included investigations into Enron or
Worldcom before their monumental collapses.
- Media Information. Media often benefits for
historical records related to government action
- Commercial Inquiries. Commercial inquiries
may be able to acquire competitor information with
regard to price lists for government contracts.
- Litigation Uses. FOIA requests often expose
incidents of government and agency impropriety or wrong
doing by private companies that are being investigated
by government agencies.
- Literary or Media Uses. FOIA requests often
are used to acquire unreleased government information
for media exposes or literary articles and books.
- How to request FOIA records?
Unfortunately, there is no single office of the federal
government that handles all FOIA requests. Each FOIA
request must be made to the particular agency that has the
records that you want. For example, if you want to know
about an investigation of motor vehicle defects, write to
the Department of Transportation.
To make a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),
the first step is to define the scope of the request and the
agency. Often assistance of an attorney may be helpful
to identify the proper agency from which a request may be
made. To help determine the proper agency, you may
wish to consult a government directory such as the
electronic manual found on the Office of the Federal
Register website at
Any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request must be in
writing. You may wish to have an attorney assist with
your request. The Act requires three basic elements
- Stating that the request is being made under
the Feedom of Information Act
- An indication of the records sought with
- The requestor's name and address.
It s NOT necessary that you indicate why you
are seeking the information.
- Is it Free?
No. The law allows agencies
to charge fees in conjunction with the status or purpose of
the requester. However, you may seek a waiver or
reduction of fees associated with your request, if you can
demonstrate to the agency that the disclosure of the records
you seek with substantially benefit the public interest.
How do I appeal a denial?
All too often, government
agencies deny requests for information under the Freedom of
Information Act. Often, the reasons for denials relate
less to the law than agency budget considerations.
Nonetheless, you have options. Most agencies
require that appeals be made within 30 to 60 days after you
receive notification of a denial. The denial letter should
tell you the office to which your appeal letter should be
addressed. For the quickest possible handling, you should
mark both your request letter and the envelope “Freedom of
Information Act Appeal.”
Under the FOIA, the agency has
twenty (20) working days to decide your appeal. Under
certain circumstances, it may also take an extension of up
to 10 working days. At some agencies, as with initial
requests, some appeals may take longer to decide.
What can I do if my appeal is
Often agencies deny appeals.
If that happens, to appeal the agency denial, you may take
the matter to court. You would be wise to hire an
experienced attorney for such a challenge. In an
appeal, a FOIA lawsuit may be filed in the U.S.
District Court where you live or where you have your
principal place of business or where the documents are kept
or in the District of Columbia. In court, the
agency will have to prove that any withheld information is
covered by one of the exemptions listed in the law.
If a court determines that the
records must be provided or you "substantially prevailed" ,
the court may require the government to pay court costs and
reasonable attorney fees for you.