FOIA in the United States and Introduction to Worldwide Public Records Laws

International Right to Know Day was September 28.  In keeping with the right to know spirit, we are presenting a four part series on freedom of information acts passed worldwide.  We start with an overview on the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was passed during the Johnson Administration and signed into law on September 6, 1966.  FOIA has undergone multiple amendments, significantly a 1974 amendment to enforce compliance and a 1996 amendment to increase access to electronic information.  Most recently, President Obama's January 2009 Executive Order ordered agencies to operate under a "presumption of disclosure" to increase transparency. In coming entries, we'll provide overviews on:

  • Canada's Access to Information Act (1983)
  • United Kingdom's Freedom of Information Act (2000)
  • India's Right to Information Act (2005)

Records Covered

The FOIA applies to records created by federal government agencies and departments and independent regulatory agencies.  State-run agencies and departments are governed by individual state public records laws.  Public universities, hospitals and other publicly funded institutions are often subject to these state laws.  Quick note:  Congress and the federal courts aren't covered by the FOIA.  Congress exempted itself when the law was passed.  So, both the Congress and the US Courts make releases pursuant to rules established by each body.

Submitting a Request

Any "person" is eligible to submit requests to obtain records under FOIA.  Records are not released to non-United States government entities.

Each agency designates a Chief FOIA Officer and one or more FOIA Public Liaisons to facilitate proper implementation of FOIA.  These officials are responsible for reducing delays and processing requests.  Upon receiving a request, an agency has 20 business days to review and fulfill it.  Should the agency require more time to complete the request, notice must be provided to the requester within this time period.  In some cases, special circumstances can be declared to expedite the processing time to 10 days.

When submitting a request, be specific as you have a better chance of getting what you want.  Also, reach out to the agency FOIA contact for help in drafting your request.  You don't need to discuss your motivation for making a request (the "why" of why you want the documents) but you do need to be very clear about what you want and a well-worded and well-advanced request dramatically increase your chances of success.

Records are typically provided in the same format as the agency's original version.  Every requestor is entitled to 2 free hours of search and review time and 100 free copies.  If a request exceeds these thresholds, commercial requestors pay according to the agency published fee schedule.  Non-commercial requestors (i.e., reporters, educational institutions) and others who can assert that the release of the requested information serves or advances a public good can have their fees waived.

Grounds for Denial

FOIA requests may be partially or completely denied by an agency.  Agencies are permitted to redact non-public information from released information, but must provide a written explanation of why the material was omitted.  Records may be denied on the following grounds if their release would:

  • Threaten national security
  • Violate privacy, such as information on personnel or medical files
  • Discuss trade secrets or private business information
  • Involve confidential inter- or intra-agency correspondence
  • Interfere with law enforcement proceedings
  • Disclose reports related to the regulation of financial institutions
  • Discuss geological information pertaining to well placement

Appeals Process and Act Enforcement

Administrative appeals can be filed by those who received denials to their FOIA requests.  Agencies have 20 business days to make a determination on an appeal after it is received.  In instances where the appeal also denies access to the requested records, the requestor may file a lawsuit in US District Court.  Read more about enforcing FOIA requests and the appeals process in our previous blog entry here.

Other Resources

Agencies are required to submit annual statistics on FOIA implementation to the US Attorney General.  This data includes statistics on the number of requests received, requests processed, requests denied and response times.

Agencies also publish annual reports detailing their FOIA compliance.  As an example, the US Department of State annual report can be viewed online here.

The full text of FOIA has also been posted on the US Department of State's website.