FOIA Turns 50 and FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 Signed Into Law

July 4th marked the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act's signing into law by President Johnson, and just days ahead of the anniversary President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, making a number of revisions to help modernize the law. 

FOIA Improvement Act of 2016

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 importantly codifies into law a presumption of disclosure, whereby federal agencies must default to disclosing a requested record unless disclosure is expressly forbidden by law or would cause foreseeable harm. The law also provides for the creation of a single online portal to submit FOIA requests to federal agencies, which is slated to go online in 2017.

The FOIA Improvement Act also limits the application of an exemption used to withhold drafts and other "deliberative" documents to 25 years. As summarized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

Under the new reforms, FOIA exemption 5, which allowed agencies to withhold privileged information indefinitely, will limit the withholding of "deliberative process" documents — such as memoranda, letters and drafts — to 25 years. Agencies' consistent overuse of the provision had caused open government advocates and journalists to refer to the exemption as the "withhold it because you want to exemption."

For more details on the provisions of the FOIA Improvement Act, see this White House Fact Sheet.

FOIA at 50

In March, the National Archives put the original signed Freedom of Information Act on public display as part of a Sunshine Week lecture series. VR Research was in attendance and snapped a photo of the original:

For some historical context, The Atlantic offers a concise history of the original passage of FOIA:

Before Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, federal agencies were veiled in secrecy. Information was nearly impossible to get. Although frustration mounted in Congress, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations successfully scuttled any attempt at reform for fear of what exposure would mean.

Lyndon B. Johnson, although similarly opposed to this kind of legislation, was less fortunate than his predecessors. On July 4, 1966, he signed the bill into law after both chambers of Congress passed it overwhelmingly. However, he diluted his endorsement, laying out a number of exceptions to the rule in his signing statement. Notably, there was no ceremony to speak of in 1966—only a tersely worded statement.

FOIA has gone through periodic updates since then. Congress passed reform legislation in the wake of the Watergate scandal, imposing sanctions for wrongly withholding documents, specifying timetables for responses, and approving fee waivers for journalists. Since then, requests have skyrocketed, but so have wait times. On his first day in office, President Obama sought to reverse this trend with a series of orders, but delays and backlogs continued.