FOIA Basics

Provided by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
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The basic FOIA process

Introduction

All significant aspects of civic life in the United States are affected by the federal government. in order to participate in democratic governance, access to government information is essential. The federal Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), is a law that generally gives any person or organization the right to access records of federal executive branch agencies upon request, unless they fall within a number of exemptions.

What FOIA does and who it applies to

FOIA applies to agencies within the executive branch of the federal government. It gives almost everyone the right to request existing written records of agencies. Agencies must generally make a determination with respect to such requests within 20 working days, meaning they must decide whether the records will be provided or if they are exempt under one of FOIA's nine exemptions. As a practical matter, however, agencies generally take much longer than 20 business days to respond to a request.

Note that:

  • You cannot ask agencies to answer a question, or to compile information that does not already exist.
  • FOIA does not apply to Congress, the federal courts, private corporations or federally funded state agencies.
  • The federal FOIA also does not apply to state or local governments. All states have their own “open records” laws that provide access to state and local records.

How to start

FOIA requests must be made in writing. Address your request letter to the FOIA officer at the appropriate agency or subdivision. You can find out how agencies accept requests and where to send them by visiting the agency's website or by finding their information on the FOIA Wiki's Agencies Landing Page. Once you have filed a FOIA request, the burden is on the government to release the documents promptly or to show that they are covered by one of the FOIA exemptions.

Some tips:

  • If you need assistance with writing and submitting your request, you can use one of several FOIA tools on the Internet, including iFOIA.org and Muckrock.
  • If you mail your request, mark the outside of the envelope “FOIA Request.” Similarly, if you email it be sure that the subject line includes the words "FOIA Request".
  • You should keep a copy of your request and note how it was sent. These will be important for following up on the request if the agency does not provide access to the records.
  • Depending on the circumstances, you may be required to pay various types of fees in connection with your request, unless your are entitled to reduced fees or a fee waiver. See the pages on Fees and Fee Categories and Fee Waivers for more details.

Requester options for agency delay/non-responsiveness

An agency is required, in most circumstances, to provide a determination with respect to a request within 20 business days, and the responsive records must be made "promptly available" thereafter. However, an agency's deadline to respond to a request can be changed in several circumstances, including if the requester is granted Expedited Processing or if there are grounds for the agency to extend its deadline. Note that merely acknowledging receipt of a request and providing a tracking number does not qualify as a determination.

If an agency fails to meet its deadline, a requester has several options, some (but not all) of which are mutually exclusive:

  1. The requester can call the agency's FOIA office to request an estimated date of completion for the request. While such an estimate may be helpful, note that agencies are not bound by such estimates, and can (and frequently do) revise them. If you need to find the contact information for the agency, search for it in the search bar above or browse the agency information landing page.
  2. The requester can file an administrative appeal with the agency challenging its failure to abide by the statutory deadline. Note that some agencies, like the Department of Justice, do not generally consider administrative appeals challenging an agency's tardiness.
  3. The requester can seek the assistance of OGIS, the federal FOIA ombudsman. OGIS can help a requester ascertain the status of their request when the agency is unresponsive, and also has mediation services.
  4. The requester can file a lawsuit to challenge the agency's failure to abide by FOIA's statutory deadlines.

Other FOIA starter guides