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Introduction to the Freedom of Information Act

Spend a little time reading in-depth news articles and sooner or later you’ll come across some mention of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and requests made through it. FOIA is the name of the federal law, and is used as a shorthand term for similar laws in each state, too. It’s the way that journalists, citizens, and sometimes even government employees themselves get documents, data and other information released to the public. The idea is relatively new in history, and many freedom of information laws were only passed in the 20th century. They first started in 18th-century Sweden, with the enactment of their Freedom of the Press Act. It stated that information, including documents created or accepted by a government or public authority, must be available to the public and provided upon request. The United States first passed a freedom of information law in 1966, but it wasn’t really enforceable or useful until after the Watergate scandal, when more provisions were added. Like Sweden’s law, the U.S. and each of its states have important exemptions to what can be requested by the public. Private information about an individual, for instance, is not to be released except to that individual. Military and intelligence information, as well as information relating to foreign relations, is also usually exempt from FOIA requests. A complete list of the nine major federal exemptions, as well as other information, is available on the internet at foia.gov/faq.html. Freedom of information was and is seen as an imperative to a society capable of self-governance, or any government responsible to its people. Democracy requires an informed voter base. FOIA laws are a complement to laws concerning court and legislative records, and the Open Meetings Act. These laws together guarantee an individual’s access to government records and information. After all, we fund it through our taxes. However, while FOIA requests are powerful tools, there are also many shortcomings and difficulties for members of the public seeking information. The first thing to remember is that FOIA doesn’t require a government to create a document or file that doesn’t already exist. If you ask for information about how many rubber ducks are sold in the U.P., don’t expect an answer, because the government doesn’t track that. If you request old documents that haven’t been digitized or statistics not in a digital spreadsheet, prepare to receive a massive copied file, or unorganized PDF, and have your credit card handy(governments and agencies can, and often do, charge for the labor and copying necessary to fulfill a FOIA request). Further complicating FOIA requests is the inconsistent application of the laws across federal, state and local levels. Requests can be delayed, ignored or “slow-walked” to frustrate requestors. Some agencies employ “creative” exemptions to deny otherwise valid requests. Excessive fees can be requested in return for the information. There are ways to appeal these decisions in Michigan, but some states have confusing or non-binding appeals processes for denied FOIA requests, and others have no appeal process at all. Luckily, for those not lucky enough to have learned how to file a FOIA request in college, there are helpful tools. Over the next few installments of Journo Field Training, we’ll look at the why and how of filing a FOIA request, either independently or with the help of the website MuckRock.com.

MuckRock, founded in 2010, has helped individuals file more than 80,000 requests in all 50 states and with the federal government. They have the experience and tools to help even the most novice of public records requesters get started with their freedom of information project. With their help, we’ll review what information might be request-able, writing a request, and following through on getting the information. Making a FOIA request without a computer or the internet is still possible, but it is more difficult. We’ll be sure to cover non-digital options for filing a request as well.

Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to jvissers@mininggazette.com.

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