How to write a FOIA request
There are two things to figure out before beginning to write a Freedom of Information Act request. The first is to whom you’re addressing the FOIA request. Local governments and state agencies are typically required to designate a “FOIA coordinator” who handles all the requests sent to them.
Once you know who that is, call them and ask for the information you want. Sometimes they’ll give it to you without a formal request, or they’ll know where it has already been made available. You can sometimes save yourself time, effort, and even money by just taking a few minutes to send an email or make a phone call and ask nicely for what you’re looking for. And it’s a good way to remember there’s a person on the other end of the line.
The second thing is making sure you know what law you’re requesting the information under. You’ll want to cite the specific law in your letter. Federal agencies are under the federal law, and each state has their own law, too.
As you begin, it helps to have a template to follow. The National Freedom of Information Coalition has a good, simple one at https://www.nfoic.org/michigan-sample-foia-request.
First, address your request like a formal letter to the FOIA coordinator. Right after that, cite the specific law you’re requesting information under. For Michigan, that’s the Michigan Freedom of Information Act § 15.231 et seq., but it will be different for different states. Don’t go overboard, one reference to the specific law is enough for the whole request.
Next, describe the files or information you want to see. Don’t ask questions. Be as specific as you can about the name and date of the documents and who has them based on what you know of the records they keep. Ask for a little bit more than you think you can get.
Always set a basic fee level where you want to be notified before they start gathering files. I usually set mine at about $5. Otherwise, they may just produce the files and expect payment, whatever that may be, without your go ahead on the total cost. If you’re planning to publish an article or research based on the information, you can request a waiver for those fees in the interest of the public good.
One thing I usually include that’s left out of the NFIC template is a request for a certain format. If you don’t specify, you might end up with a stack of 300 sheets of paper, or a PDF file of a spreadsheet you were hoping to work with in Excel. If you’re expecting a workable spreadsheet, ask for a CSV file. If you don’t want physical copies, specifically ask for them to be delivered in a digital format.
The last two things on the template are kind of reminders of how quickly the law requires a response (five business days), and that they’re required to specify what law allows the exemptions they may claim on the requested information.
Don’t worry too much about the exact wording. Is it better to sound formal and professional? Sure it is. But the agency is required to respond to requests like this whether they’re expertly written or not. As long as you cite the law at the beginning of the letter (and provide contact information), you can expect to get at least some kind of response.
Try to keep the whole letter under a page long, and don’t forget to sign your name. Some states and agencies will let you make a request anonymously, but not all of them. As a reporter, I always identify myself.
There are some other alternatives to drafting a letter from scratch.
Many state and federal agencies will have an online form or FOIA center where you can fill out an electronic request. These are usually simply a matter of filling in the required blanks on an online form. Each agency is a bit different, but most of them require a login and will send you email notifications when there’s an update on your request.
If you’re dealing with a federal or large state agency, you might want to enlist some help from MuckRock.com. FOIA coordinators know who MuckRock is. Not only will the website help you draft your requests to a multitude of agencies, they also track and coach you on how to negotiate for information.
Yes, I said negotiate. Even if the initial response to your request is a flat no, or if they ask for hundreds of dollars to fulfill it, that doesn’t mean your FOIA ship is sunk. Next week we’ll talk about negotiating with the FOIA coordinator.
Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.