The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) is a federal statute that allows members of the public to request non-public documents from the federal government. Documents authored by the federal government are considered part of the public domain when it comes to copyright law, and FOIA is similarly premised on the idea that people have a right to know what their government is up to. FOIA requests are a key part of the investigative process for many journalists, but FOIA can be an incredibly useful research tool for many types of authors, as it enables access to new, primary sources of information about federal government activity.
In today’s blog post, we will introduce FOIA and explain how authors can benefit from this law. Next week, we will discuss FOIA litigation involving authors in order to offer takeaways for authors interested in using FOIA in the course of their research and writing.
What is FOIA?
The Freedom of Information Act was enacted into law in 1967. Under the Act, anyone can request documents produced and/or held by a federal government agency—such as the IRS, State Department, NASA, or ICE—which is obligated to turn over any documents it possesses that fall within the scope of the request. FOIA has enabled requesters to obtain investigative files compiled by the FBI, e-mails between certain government officials, and data collected by federal agencies, for example.
However, an agency may withhold or redact documents if they fall into one of nine delineated “exemptions” to FOIA. Broadly speaking, the exemptions protect national security interests, the integrity of ongoing law enforcement investigations, inter-agency deliberations, confidential commercial information supplied to the government by private entities, the privacy of individuals and law enforcement officials, and information that is exempt from disclosure under another federal statute. FOIA only applies to the executive branch of the federal government, meaning that it does not apply to the courts or Congress, nor does it apply to state governments. However, every state has its own public records law which allows requesters to obtain state government records under similar procedures. The procedure for filing a FOIA request varies by federal agency, but most can now be submitted online, via an online form on an agency’s website or via email. If you are interested in filing a FOIA request with a federal government agency, the federal FOIA website can direct you towards the right web form or point of contact.
Once a request has been made, the relevant government agency is required to issue a response within 20 business days, otherwise the request can be considered to be “constructively denied,” that is, denied based on the agency’s lack of response. The agency’s response, if one is provided, can grant the request in full, grant it in part and deny it in part, or deny the request in full. Then, the requester has an opportunity to appeal the agency’s response by sending another communication explaining why the request should not have been denied, in what is known as an administrative appeal. If the requester is not satisfied with the agency’s response to the appeal, they may file a lawsuit against the government agency to which the request was sent to enforce FOIA and try to compel the agency to produce the requested documents.
FOIA for Authors
Under FOIA, any person or entity (like a university or commercial business) can make a request, regardless of citizenship or the motivation for sending the request. Yet the FOIA statute does contain some protections for certain types of requesters, including journalists and authors.
First, FOIA provides for “expedited processing,” whereby an agency must respond in 10 business days, rather than 20, in some circumstances. One such circumstance of relevance to authors is when the requester is a “person primarily engaged in disseminating information” and there is an “urgency to inform the public concerning actual or alleged Federal Government activity.” This provision has typically been applied to journalists, but authors have requested expedited processing under the provision as well.
Second, FOIA allows for a “fee waiver” that excuses certain requesters from having to pay fees for copying and staff time employed performing a search for the records requested (though requesters may have to pay for copying costs incurred in excess of $100). Members of the news media are entitled to a fee waiver under the statute, as are “educational [and] noncommercial scientific institutions, whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research.” Authors affiliated with academic institutions are often granted such a fee waiver. To receive a fee waiver, an author must actually request one in their request, so it can be a good idea to ask for one if you think you might fall into either category. As a practical matter, it never hurts to ask!
One potential downside of FOIA as a research tool for authors is that the timing of an agency’s response can be somewhat unpredictable. While FOIA mandates that an agency must issue a final response within 20 business days, in practice, FOIA requests often languish for much longer than this, and in some cases, patience will eventually yield results. Yet writing projects often have their own timelines and deadlines, making it difficult to plan around the outcome of FOIA requests.
On the other hand, advancements in technology have in many ways made FOIA more accessible to authors and other requesters of government documents. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 were enacted into law. These amendments require agencies to make their “reading room” records available online, and encourage agencies to send records electronically wherever possible, among other electronic record-friendly provisions. Today, most responsive records are sent to requesters electronically, though there are exceptions. The E-FOIA amendments encourage agencies to send records in a more accessible, digital format. They have also had the effect of decreasing the delays and costs associated with copying and mailing physical documents, making FOIA more usable to authors and the general public.