Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Media Law and Ethics Glossary Terms

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 aims to promote transparency and accountability within the government by providing individuals with the right to access government records.

Who can request information under the FOIA?

Any individual, regardless of nationality or citizenship, can request information under the FOIA. This includes U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, organizations, and businesses. Requests can be made for personal use, commercial purposes, or on behalf of a third party.

What type of information can be requested under the FOIA?

Under the FOIA, individuals can request a wide range of information, including but not limited to government records, documents, emails, reports, memos, and other materials held by federal agencies. However, certain types of information may be exempt from disclosure, such as classified national security information, trade secrets, and personal privacy information.

How does the FOIA process work?

To request information under the FOIA, individuals must submit a written request to the federal agency that holds the desired information. The request should include a detailed description of the information being sought and the requester’s contact information. Once the request is received, the agency has 20 business days to respond, either by providing the requested information, denying the request, or requesting an extension.

What are the exemptions to the FOIA?

While the FOIA provides for the disclosure of government information, there are nine exemptions that allow agencies to withhold certain types of information from release. These exemptions include information that is classified for national security reasons, trade secrets, personal privacy information, and law enforcement records. Agencies may also withhold information that would harm the government’s deliberative process or reveal confidential sources.

How can individuals appeal a denial of a FOIA request?

If a FOIA request is denied, individuals have the right to appeal the decision to the agency’s FOIA office or the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). The appeal should be submitted in writing and include a detailed explanation of why the denial was incorrect or unjustified. If the appeal is denied, individuals may seek further review through the federal court system.