The Freedom of Information Act: A Brief Overview

The Freedom of Information Act, more commonly known as FOIA, was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966.  In his statement for the press at that time, President Johnson asserted that he had signed the measure “with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”

Essentially, FOIA allows any person to gain access to all records maintained by any federal agency.  You do not have to be a U. S. citizen to submit a FOIA request.

It is not complicated, nor do you have to be a lawyer in order to craft a request under FOIA.  All federal agencies maintain websites that have detailed information regarding FOIA and how to file a FOIA request.

You can request records concerning yourself, an event, public figure or a deceased individual.  FOIA requests may be made in letter form or via email.

Once an agency receives a FOIA request, it has 20 business days to comply with the request.  The sad reality is that it takes some agencies months and sometimes years to comply with a FOIA request.

FOIA allows an agency to withhold documents in full or in part if they contain information that falls within one of nine exemptions.  For example, there is an exemption for national security information as well as one that allows agencies to withhold certain law enforcement records.

These exemptions, it should be noted, are permissive and not mandatory.  In other words, simply because sought-after records fall within one or more of the FOIA exemptions does not mean that the agency has to invoke the exemption(s).  It is important not to lose sight of the fact that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant feature of FOIA.

If an agency withholds some or all of the information sought by a FOIA requester or, if an agency does not respond to a FOIA request within the time limits set forth under the law, an administrative appeal may be filed.  FOIA appeals, like FOIA requests, are supposed to be acted on by an agency within 20 business days.

Unfortunately, however, many agencies have large backlogs of FOIA appeals and it is not uncommon to wait many months before a final determination is made on an administrative appeal.  On appeal, the agency may uphold its initial determination or it can decide to release some or all of the data that was initially withheld.  FOIA also provides that a requester may file a lawsuit in order to compel disclosure of desired records.

FOIA is important to foreign nationals and immigrants since agencies like the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) frequently maintain information and documents that they don’t even know exists.  An article entitled, “How to Get a Copy of Your Immigration File,” which may be found at:  http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/how-get-copy-your-immigration-file-form-g-639-foia-requests.html contains a concise summary of the types of records maintained by USCIS and how foreign nationals and immigrants may secure these files under FOIA.

For more additional details about FOIA, what it is and how to file FOIA requests and appeals, the following websites have lots of useful information:

http://burningbooksbuffalo.com/pages/foia

http://www.foia.gov/

https://ogis.archives.gov/

http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nsa/foia.html

Michael Kuzma is an attorney based in Buffalo, who has extensive experience using FOIA and the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to secure records from federal, state and local governmental agencies.  Additional information regarding Mr. Kuzma may be found at:  michaelkuzma.com

Leave a Reply