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What is the FoIA?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
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  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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The acronym FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law signed into effect by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 and activated in 1967. As the use of electronic documents and emails became more widespread, President Bill Clinton signed an amendment to the FOIA in 1996 which covered electronic communications as well. The FOIA has been used by researchers, journalists and attorneys to compel government agencies to release non-classified documents in a timely manner.

Before the FOIA became law in the late 1960s, many government agencies such as the CIA, FBI and Department of Justice routinely refused many requests for information considered to be in the public interest. A defendant in a murder trial, for instance, could not be guaranteed that the FBI would release sensitive documents about other possible suspects under investigation. Reporters seeking the most accurate figures on war casualties or policy changes were often denied access to those records and had no power to force their release.

Following the creation of the FOIA, any private citizen could apply to receive federal records and documents from any government agency. The applicant does not have to provide a reason for the request, but the government agency must provide a reason if they do not release the requested document. If a reasonable request is denied, a special judicial proceeding can be used against the agency. A federal judge can legally compel government officials to release requested documents.

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This is where the FOIA process often takes a turn for the worse. Built into the FOIA statutes are nine specific exemptions. Some of these exemptions protect private citizens from the release of embarrassing information, or protect confidential informants from public exposure. A document released by a federal agency can be redacted, meaning sensitive information exempt from the FOIA can be marked out. Many journalists, researchers and attorneys have received documents with 80 or 90 percent of the text blackened out with a pen.

Other exemptions may cover trade secrets or the names of prominent citizens under investigation. A journalist requesting a federal court document on the Coca Cola company, for example, might receive a redacted transcript in which the secret formula for the Coca Cola beverage was revealed. An FBI case file on Marilyn Monroe obtained under FOIA may have the names of her visitors blacked out.

One of the chief complaints against the present wording of the FOIA concerns presidential powers. One exemption allows documents released under FOIA to be redacted or censored if the information could affect matters of national security or national interests. The definitions of 'national security' and 'national interest' are notoriously vague, which means a president or other high-ranking government official can legally redact a document to the point where it becomes useless for the applicant's purposes. While there may be some legal relief against federal agencies which fail to release documents under the FOIA, there is little recourse against agencies and officials who release heavily edited documents.

There are over 60 countries in the world with some form of freedom of information legislation. Individual states have also approved legislation which requires full disclosure of state-level decisions made in the public interest. Another piece of legislation which complements the FOIA is often referred to as the Government in Sunshine Act. The various Sunshine Acts passed by states prevent government agencies from meeting in secret if matters in the public interest are to be decided. Private executive sessions can still be held to discuss sensitive issues, but the public must be able to access any records of public meetings.

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