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What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

Federal agencies were forced into stricter compliance with the Freedom of Information Act in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
The Freedom of Information Act is intended to make federal government agency information available to all.
Article Details
  • Originally Written By: Stephanie Partridge
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Jay Garcia
  • Images By: Tommy Japan, Pressmaster
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2014
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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a United States law that is designed to give the public the right to access certain information held by federal government agencies. It was enacted in 1966 and is codified at 5 U.S.C. § 552, and it has been continually updated and amended to account for things like digital data archives and electronic information systems. The law sets out a set of parameters and requirements detailing who can file a request, how that request needs to be worded, and how it must be answered. In general anyone can submit a petition for information under the act, though in most cases it’s only applicable to federal agencies. State and local governments may have similar reporting and disclosure requirements, but they don’t normally come under this law. It’s important to note that not all information must be disclosed under all circumstances. Transparency is one of law’s biggest goals, but even still, there are some documents and databases that simply can’t be disclosed to the public — at least not without some pretty serious restrictions.

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Request Basics

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.

Application Parameters

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.

Important Exceptions

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

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Discuss this Article

youbiKan
Post 2

Perhaps one of the biggest users of the freedom of information act in the United States of America is the American Civil Liberties Union. This amazing organization has been able to out lots of government corruption and stop injustice throughout our nation.

By having the Freedom of Information Act come to a legal standard, the American Civil Liberties Union has been able to uproot wrong doings and hold accountable the people that are charged with delivering justice to our nations citizens. It is vital that we keep laws like this available and only when we do have them can we properly fight against a corrupt government.

dkarnowski
Post 1

The Freedom of Information Act is an absolutely vital tool that is been made available people seeking the truth and transparency in our government that is to serve the American people. Without this tool, journalists would not be able to sequester the kind of information that they need to out government corruption.

This legal device is what allows us to truly see the kind of corrupt operations that can happen inside of government. It also has the valuable use of being able to verify when the government is doing things correctly.

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