At the federal level, the statute that grants the right to review public records is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552. FOIA specifically provides that “any person” can request information from the government without requiring identification of the requestor or explanation of the purpose of the request. The term "records" is defined expansively to include all types of documentary information, such as papers, reports, letters, films, computer tapes, photographs and sound recordings. Yet, the right is subject to limitation under certain exceptions, including:
¨ Documents classified as secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy;
¨ Documents related solely to internal personnel rules and practices;
¨ Confidential enforcement information;
¨ Confidential business information;
¨ Inter-agency or intra-agency communications, except under certain circumstances;
¨ Personnel, medical or similar files that, if disclosed, would constitute an invasion of privacy; and,
¨ Certain information concerning gas or oil wells.
However, if this excepted information can be easily separated or removed from the requested files, the agency should make the remainder available for public viewing, upon request.
WHO CAN USE THE ACT?
Anyone can make a Freedom of Information Act request. Requests can be made in the name of an individual, corporation, partnership, or other entity, such as a public interest group or neighborhood association.
HOW TO MAKE A REQUEST
First, before making a Freedom of Information Act request, determine what information you need. The law requires that your request reasonably describe the records you seek. It is not enough to simply ask questions; you must request records describing or pertaining to a particular subject. You do not need to specify a document by name or title, but you must provide a reasonable description of the information you seek to allow a government employee who is familiar with the agency's files to locate the records. The more specific you are in your request, the faster you are likely to receive the documents. If you are not specific enough, the agency may not be able to fulfill your request until you clarify what you want.
Second, decide which agency has the information you want and get the address of the agency . There is no central Freedom of Information Act office. At most agencies, a designated officer answers Freedom of Information Act requests. Each federal agency has its own regulations outlining its FOIA program, including procedures for the disclosure of records, confidentiality, fees and exemptions. Be sure to check the agency’s rules interpreting FOIA, so that your request meets its requirements.
Third, determine if you can obtain the documents without a formal Freedom of Information Act request. Sometimes it is faster and easier to get documents informally, by simply visiting or calling the agency. Also, if the information is already publicly available (online or at the library, for example), you can request a copy of it from the appropriate agency’s regional office without filing a FOIA request.
Finally, draft a Freedom of Information Act request letter. Your letter should state that the request is being made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act and you should write "Freedom of Information Request" on the envelope and at the top the letter. Keep a copy of the request and a record of when you sent it. Your request will be made part of the public record and may be placed in the agency’s files.
Once the agency receives a FOIA request, it has 20 business days to reply with its decision of whether it will comply with no automatic extensions. Due to the high volume of requests in some offices, though, the agency may take more time fulfill the request. Like any other agency action that involves the public, if your request is denied in whole or in part, the reply also must provide information about your right to an appeal.
To compensate for the time and effort spent in reviewing and copying requested documents, the agency is allowed to charge for copying costs associated with public records. The rates are set under the FOIA Reform Act of 1986. The agency may charge for time spent in search and/or review of the documents requested, and for the actual copying of the documents. However, the agency cannot charge for time spent making copies. Additionally, the agency may waive or reduce fees in cases where providing the information primarily will benefit the general public by significantly assisting citizens in understanding how their government works.
Click here to see a sample FOIA request letter
Click here to go to the Department of Justice FOIA website. Note that each federal agency will also have its own FOIA site. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-New Orleans District’s FOIA website is: