Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Journalism Glossary Terms

1. What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government. Enacted in 1966, the FOIA promotes transparency and accountability within the government by providing individuals with the right to request access to federal agency records. This law is based on the principle that the public has the right to know what the government is doing.

2. How does the FOIA work?

Under the FOIA, any person, regardless of nationality, can request access to federal agency records. To make a request, individuals must submit a written request to the specific agency that holds the information they seek. The agency then has 20 business days to respond to the request, either by providing the requested information, denying the request, or asking for an extension.

If the request is granted, the agency may provide the information in various formats, such as paper copies, electronic files, or through an online portal. Agencies may charge fees for processing FOIA requests, but certain categories of requesters, such as journalists or non-profit organizations, may be eligible for fee waivers.

3. What information can be requested under the FOIA?

The FOIA allows individuals to request a wide range of information, including government reports, emails, memos, meeting minutes, and other records held by federal agencies. However, there are some limitations on the types of information that can be requested, such as classified national security information, trade secrets, and personal privacy information.

Individuals can also request information about themselves under the FOIA, such as immigration records, medical records, or employment records held by federal agencies. Additionally, the FOIA applies to all federal agencies, including executive branch departments, independent agencies, and government corporations.

4. Who can request information under the FOIA?

Any person, regardless of citizenship or residency status, can request information under the FOIA. This includes individuals, organizations, businesses, and foreign nationals. Requesters do not need to provide a reason for their request, and agencies are prohibited from asking for justification or purpose.

In some cases, third parties may also request information under the FOIA, such as journalists, researchers, or advocacy groups. However, agencies may redact certain sensitive information before releasing it to protect privacy or national security interests.

5. What are the exemptions to the FOIA?

While the FOIA provides for the disclosure of most government records, there are nine exemptions that allow agencies to withhold certain information from the public. These exemptions include:

1. National security information
2. Internal agency rules and practices
3. Information that is exempt from disclosure by other laws
4. Trade secrets and commercial or financial information
5. Interagency or intra-agency communications
6. Personal privacy information
7. Law enforcement records
8. Financial institution information
9. Geological and geophysical information

Agencies must justify their decision to withhold information under one of these exemptions and provide a written explanation to the requester.

6. How can one appeal a FOIA request denial?

If a FOIA request is denied, the requester has the right to appeal the decision to the agency’s FOIA office or the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). The appeal must be submitted in writing within 90 days of the denial and should include a detailed explanation of why the denial was incorrect or unjustified.

If the appeal is denied, the requester can file a lawsuit in federal court to challenge the agency’s decision. The court will review the agency’s decision and determine whether the denial was lawful under the FOIA. Requesters may also seek assistance from organizations such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press or the Electronic Frontier Foundation to help with their appeal or lawsuit.