The law makes it possible for people to access certain information that was previously tightly controlled by governmental agencies, but it still gives those agencies a lot of power to structure how they will handle and respond to the requests. Each federal agency typically has its own disclosure office, which governs how FOIA requests for that agency are processed. Not all agencies handle their freedom of information requests the same way, but the law does provide some specific rules when it comes to things like the timeliness of request responses, the nature of material that can be divulged, and the proper procedure for withholding material.
Each agency also usually has to publish a guide letting the public know how to make a request for its records. This includes creating a handbook, indexes, reference guide and a description of the information locator systems. This can often best be accessed through the agency's website, but it’s usually required to be in print, too.
The Freedom of Information Act is generally understood to apply broadly to federal regulatory agencies, Executive Branch agencies, and most federal offices and departments as well as federal corporations. It does not apply to federal courts, however, nor is Congress covered; certain sections of the Executive Office that function specifically to assist and advise the President are normally exempt, too.
Most documents and data are included, but again not usually everything. The act covers all “agency records,” which in most cases includes e-mail, print documents, electronic records, maps, videos and photographs that were obtained or created by an agency. In most cases, this material must be in a specific agency's control and possession in order to be eligible for FOIA request and disclosure.
Who May File
Under the law, “any person” is eligible and entitled to submit a request. This includes United States citizens, foreign nationals, universities, associations and organizations. The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s prompted some of the first amendments to the FOIA, which came into effect in 1974; among other things, these broadened the definitions of who could request information and required stricter compliance for the agencies.
Though the act is designed to promote transparency, it isn’t intended to be a complete open door to information. There may be times when parts of a requested document contain information that could potentially be harmful to the agency or violate an individual's privacy. In cases like this, the agency usually has the discretion to withhold that material under one or more of nine different exemptions that the Freedom of Information Act provides.
Exemptions don’t usually act as outright prohibitions, and any portion of the material that is non-exempt must be usually still be released according to the law’s requirement that any “reasonable segregable portion” of the document must be disclosed once the exempt portions have been redacted. In part this is to prevent an agency from withholding an entire document for just one name, sentence or photo.
The nine exemptions of the FOIA are as follows:
Exemption (b)(1) Classified Matters of National Defense or Foreign Policy
Exemption (b)(2) Internal Personnel Rules and Practices
Exemption (b)(3) Information Specifically Exempted by Other Statutes
Exemption (b)(4) Trade Secrets, Commercial or Financial Information
Exemption (b)(5) Privileged Interagency or Intra-Agency Memoranda or Letters
Exemption (b)(6) Personal Information Affecting an Individual's Privacy
Exemption (b)(7) Investigatory Records Compiled for Law Enforcement Purposes
Exemption (b)(8) Records of Financial Institutions
Exemption (b)(9) Geographical and Geophysical Information Concerning Wells