How to file a FOIA Requests, and Other Information Gathering Laws

A Freedom of Information Act request is an important, legal tool that is very useful in asking questions of the government. For more information, read this interview Paul McMasters of the Freedom Forum. This story was originally posted at IndyStar.com. Provided by the Society of Professional Journalists. There is a FOIA Letter Generator at http://lpin.org/resources.

Your right to federal government files is established by two federal laws: the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552), enacted in 1966, amended in 1974, 1986 and 1996, and the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. 552a).

How to begin:

1. Decide what documents you want.

Decide what agency or agencies to write to – write or call, if necessary, to clarify your request with the agency. If you want records in a form other than paper, specify your wishes as precisely as possible.

Most agencies will not consider your request properly filed unless you state something about the fees – either your willingness to pay or your request for a fee waiver. By setting an amount up front, the agency will begin to process your request, and you can maintain some ultimate control over the amount you may have to pay. It is always a good idea to call the agency’s FOI officer several days after your request is mailed, to be sure of its arrival and to talk directly with the officer processing your request. Quite often you can resolve any minor problems concerning your request at that time and avoid delays.

If denied in full or in part, write an appeal letter.

If still denied, ask for congressional help or contact a local or national FOI group.

If still denied, consider filing suit.

Records exempt from public access

There are nine exemptions under the act. Don’t let the exemptions stop you from making a request. It is official government policy based on a Justice Department directive (admittedly not always honored) that even exempt information should be released “unless it is important to the public interest” to withhold the material. Exemptions include: national security, internal agency rules, information exempted by another federal statute, trade secrets, internal memos, personal privacy, investigatory records, financial institutional records, oil well information.

There have been numerous changes under the Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments of 1996. Deadlines for some portions of the amended act vary so it is advisable to read the full text of this legislation.

Obligations of government agencies to respond

Agencies have 20 days to respond to FOI requests. Agencies must publish an annual report which includes reasons for denials, appeals, number of days required to process requests, number of backlogged requests, number of full-time staff devoted to processing requests, and amount of fees collected.

An agency must show the amount of information deleted in any released copy of a record unless that indication would harm the interest protected by the exemption. Missing portions must be readily apparent to the requester.

Agencies will be allowed to develop multi-tracking processing policies, sorting requests by complexity. A requester could amend or simplify a request in order to expedite processing.

Agencies shall provide the record in any form or format requested by the person if the record is readily reproducible by the agency in that format, except when such efforts would significantly interfere with the operation of the agency’s automated information system.

Agencies must provide for expedited processing for a “compelling need.” Compelling need means failure to get records would threaten a person’s life or safety or there is urgency in informing the public about government activity such as a military base closing.

Agencies must provide an index of previously released FOI records that have been, or will likely be, the subject of additional requests. That index was to be made available online by Dec. 31, 1999.

(There is also another IndyStar.com article that details an Indiana Citizen’s right to get information from local governments: How to go after public files: Your rights To Public Records and Open Meetings. This is a portion of that article:)

Frequently asked questions

Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act allows residents vast access to the records of their government, but many people don’t know about the law or aren’t sure how to make it work for them. Here’s a guide.

Who can ask for public records?

Anyone.

What records can I ask for?

Anyone can ask for any public record, although the government doesn’t have to turn over some documents, including some personnel files, documents that would compromise security or some confidential information, such as information about hospital patients or students.

What if I want to attend a government meeting?

The Indiana Open Door Law requires that the public be able to observe almost all the work of governing bodies. They are allowed to hold closed-door meetings occasionally to address specific sensitive topics.

What counts as a public record?

Any piece of paper or electronic file the government has. The law has a very clear definition: “any writing, paper, report, study, map, photograph, book, card, tape recording, or other material that is created, received, retained, maintained or filed by or with a public agency.”

What if they won’t give it to me?

If the government won’t give you a record, it has to tell you why. If you disagree, you can consult with the state’s public access counselor, who can make a ruling. If that still doesn’t work, you can sue and win court costs.

What if an official says it’s not his or her job to find a record for me?

The law is very clear: “Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees.”

How long do I have to wait?

It depends on how you ask. If you ask in person or over the phone, it has to tell you within 24 hours whether it’ll turn over the records. If you do it via mail, they have a week. That doesn’t mean it has to hand over records that quick. It is allowed time to gather and photocopy them.

What if I just want to look at the record, not request a photocopy?

Indiana law allows anyone to ask to inspect the records of the government during normal business hours.

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