The ability to use the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) to access records from governmental agencies has existed since 1967. According to foia.gov, it is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
âGovernment agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions, which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.
âThe FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records.Â
âAny person, United States citizen or not, can make a FOIA request. Before doing so, however, first look to see if the information you are interested in is already publicly available.Â You can find a lot of useful information on a range of topics on each agencyâs website.Â
âYou cannot make a FOIA request to a private person or any private enterprise.âIf the information you want is not publicly available, you can submit a FOIA request to the agencyâs office. Some have a person designated as the FOIA agent, who handles requests for the entire agency. Â
âThe request simply must be in writing and reasonably describe the records you seek.Â Most government agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, including by web form, email or fax. There is no specific form that must be used to make a request.
âA FOIA request can be made for any agency record. You can also specify the format in which you wish to receive the records (for example, printed or electronic form). The FOIA does not require agencies to create new records or to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests.
âAfter an agency receives your FOIA request, you will usually receive a letter acknowledging the request. If the agency requires additional information before it can begin to process your request, it will contact you. The agency will typically search for records in response to your request and then review those records to determine which â and what parts of each â can be released. The agency will redact, or black out, any information protected from disclosure by one of the FOIAâs nine exemptions. The releasable records will then be sent to you.
Â âThere is no initial fee required to submit a FOIA request, but the FOIA does provide for the charging of certain types of fees in some instances. For a typical requester the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for records and for duplication of those records.
âYou may always include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If an agency estimates that the total fees for processing your request will exceed $25, it will notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees. If you agree to pay fees for a records search, you may be required to pay such fees even if the search does not locate any releasable records.
âOnce the agency has processed your request it will send you a written response. This response will let you know whether records were located and will include all releasable documents. If any portions of the records are withheld, for instance because disclosure would invade an individualâs personal privacy, the agency will inform you of the specific FOIA exemption that is being applied.
âTypically, agencies have five business days to respond to a request. They can take an extension if needed for various reasons.
âNot all records are required to be released under the FOIA. Congress established nine exemptions from disclosure for certain categories of information to protect against certain harms, such as an invasion of personal privacy, or harm to law enforcement investigations.
âThe FOIA authorizes agencies to withhold information when they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of these nine exemptions.
âFor a list of those exemptions and exclusions, visit foia.gov.