Did you know you could obtain any piece of information or records you want from the government ? Yes, this is entirely possible through the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966. Fun fact, he was very reluctant to sign this bill into law and hated the idea of it because this law implied less secrecy of government, particularly the executive branch, functions.
Agitations that led to the enactment of this law came from rising concerns of government secrecy during the Cold War era. Congressman John Moss advocated heavily for this law. He drew a significant amount of support from journalists, scientists and newspaper editors. The voice of opposition came strongly from federal agencies. Their argument was that their inability to keep records secret would not be beneficial to the proper functioning of government agencies. They also felt that national security could be undermined in a situation where government information is easily available to the public. However, according to John Moss, “..The more information that is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”
Despite all opposition and controversy the bill brought up initially, we are lucky today to have the FOIA. This law is essential to free press and the maintenance of democracy because it keeps the citizens adequately informed about the government, ensures transparency of the government, helps to ensure watchdog journalism and ultimately prevents a democracy from turning into a dictatorship or tyranny.
While the FOIA gives access to government agency records, there are some limitations and exemptions one needs to be aware of. Congress entrenched nine exemptions to the FOIA. These include classified information that protects national security, information forbidden from being disclosed by federal law, confidential trade and commercial information, confidential communication between agencies, law enforcement information that could interfere with fair legal proceedings, information that encroaches individual privacy, certain information regarding financial institutions, certain information regarding rules and practices of an agency and geological information on wells.
To file a FOIA request, you have to first consider if the information is readily available to the public. If no, visit https://www.ifoia.org/ to create a request for the information. Make sure to coherently explain the information you are seeking and address it to the right government agency. For instance, if you need an information concerning toxic release of certain chemicals in the environment, the government agency to address would be the Environmental Protection Agency.
There is no designated fee for filing a FOIA request but you could be charged fees in some cases. It is always advisable to state the limit of the amount you are willing to pay in your FOIA request letter. In the case where you are denied access to certain information, you would be given the reason for the denial. Additionally, you have the right to appeal the denial.
Aside from government agency records, an interesting fact to know is that you can request FBI records of events, investigations, businesses, groups, deceased persons and your personal FBI file under the FOIA. Nonetheless, it is important to understand there may be privacy restrictions.