As spring blooms, a little-known celebration takes place: Sunshine Week. The week celebrates groundbreaking legislation passed during the height of the Cold War, when the government played its cards very close to the vest. The legislation: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
With the FOIA, people have a right to any information published by the federal government, with a few exceptions.
Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, and it was amended and expanded in 1976, and again in 1996. The original legislation is on display at the National Archives in Washington this week. Activist and lawyer Ralph Nader was the father of the law.
The National Archives, the Sunshine Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists and many more are marking Sunshine Week, March 10–17.
Anyone can ask for any published government material with a FOIA request. No fees should be charged for noncommercial users; journalists and citizens are asked to reimburse the government for copying after 100 pages, and for search after two hours. That can be waived if the material is of major public interest.
Commercial users can be charged reasonable search, reproduction, and document fees.
Nader’s Freedom of Information Clearinghouse (FIC) publishes a guide to FOIA requests:
1. Determine which agency has the information you seek. Government portals, FOIA.gov and foiaonline.gov, allow simultaneous searching of multiple agencies, and give detailed help and instructions.
2. Check if a FOIA request is needed. The law requires the government to proactively release information and make it available both online and in reading rooms. That is the source of the story behind the movie “Argo,” for example. The CIA has been declassifying and publishing older records, and so has the FBI.
3. Be as specific as possible. Ask for particular records; a general question won’t do. According to the Nader guide, the law requires “Your request to reasonably describe the records you seek.”
4. Use the term FOIA, and say that the request is made based on that law.
5. If the records you seek are about you, refer to the Privacy Act as well as to FOIA.
6. It is lawful to ask for all records about yourself. Such a request needs a Social Security number, a notarized signature or affidavit, date of birth and other verifying information.
7. If an agency has the information you need in one form, but you want it in a different form, the agency must provide it in the form you want, as long as it is reasonably reproducible, according to the FIC guide.
Nine kinds of information are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act: Trade secrets, information exempted by another federal statute, internal agency rules, internal agency memoranda, personal private information, and investigatory records. Exemptions eight and nine are special interest exemptions about banking and oil wells, according to the FIC.
If an investigation is underway and the subject is not aware of the investigation, an agency can say no such records exist. For other records with exempt material, the agency is supposed to release everything else with the exempt part marked out, as in the opening credits of “Zero-Dark-Thirty.”
In principle, each FOIA request should be honored quickly and freely. In real life, states vary wildly in compliance.
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