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What Is FOIA, How Does It Work?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

It feels like there are four letters that find their way into any news report about a political scandal. F-O-I-A. Even something as silly as the contested crowd sizes for Obama and Trump's inaugurations was stoked by a FOIA request.

The Freedom of Information Act gives citizens the right to request information and records kept by federal government agencies. So how do FOIA requests work? And who can request what kind of information?

The Who

FOIA requires federal agencies to make certain information automatically available to the public as well as respond to requests for hard copy and electronic information. Requests aren't limited to just reporters or government employees -- anyone can make requests under FOIA. However, not all government agencies are subject to FOIA requests.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, FOIA only applies to "federal agencies, departments, regulatory commissions, federal corporations and other executive branch offices, as well as private contractors maintaining records on behalf of these entities." The Office of the President, including some White House offices, federal courts, and Congress are generally exempt from FOIA. The law also doesn't cover state and local governments; every state has open records laws that are similar.

The What

FOIA applies to all agency records unless they fall under one of a few exceptions. From the EFF, they are:

  • Classified information that national security;
  • Internal information involving personnel rules and agency practices;
  • Material specifically shielded from disclosure by another law;
  • Confidential commercial or financial data, like trade secrets;
  • Records that would be privileged in litigation;
  • Information that would invade someone's privacy;
  • Law enforcement records;
  • Information related to government regulation of financial institutions; and
  • Certain geological/geographical data.

The How

FOIA requests are made to the agency from which you're seeking the information, and filing information can generally be found on the agency's website. You will need to include some information about yourself, enough details and descriptive information about the records you're seeking, and possibly some fees to cover the cost of producing the information.

If you have more questions about FOIA requests, an attorney might help.

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