The Freedom of Information Act
A Great Tool for Finding the Truth
In the United States we have a law called the Freedom of Information Act. To use it effectively, you need to know a few things. Here is a twelve point guide.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law on Independence Day, 1966. The nation's media provided the lobbying impetus for passage of the legislation, which armed reporters with the means to ferret out important stories. At the same time, the law provided the average citizen better access to government information. Since then, countless FOIA requests have yielded documents on matters ranging from the mundane to the momentous. It has become a favored tool of muckrakers, although it is by and large still an under-utilized investigative device.
*12 Steps to FOIA Success*
1. The Freedom of Information Act only entitles citizens to existing records, which means that agencies are not obligated to collect or analyze information for you. So when preparing a request, always try to hone in on specific documents.
2. Address your request to the proper agency--that is, the one with responsibility for the program of interest to you. Two good sources for identifying the right agency are the Federal Information Center, (fic.info.gov or by telephone 800-688-9889) a program overseen by the U.S. General Services Administration, and the United States Government Manual, (www.access.gpo.gov/nara/nara001.html, also available in printed form from the Goverment Print Office) which includes addresses for agency heaquarters and field offices.
3. Call the agency and speak to someone about the documents you're seeking. You may be provided with information that will help narrow your request. What's more, if that agency doesn't maintain the records you're seeking, the staff may be able to indentify the proper agency.
4. Your FOIA letter should be addressed to the agency's FOIA officer. Write "Freedom of Information Act Request" on the envelope.
5. Include your name, address, and phone number on the FOIA letter. If an agency FOIA officer has questions about your request, a phone call can speed up the process.
6. The letter should be brief and simple. If should indicate that the request is being made under the Freedom of Information Act.
7. By law, the letter must "reasonably describe" the records you want. That means you must provide enough detail to permit agency staff to locate the records. So be as precise as possible, including names, dates, and addressses whenever possible.
8. If you can't identify specific records, clearly explain what you're looking for.
9. The law mandates that fees must be waived or reduced if disclosure of the information is in the public interest. Therefore, include in your letter a request for a waiver or a reduction of fees. In addition, ask to be notified in advance if search and copying fees will exceed the fixed amount. When appropriate, explain how disclosure of the requested records will contribute to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.
10. If you want computer records or records in a form other than paper, state this clearly in your request.
11. Follow up your request with a phone call.
12. Keep a copy of the request letter along with copies of any additional correspondence. Also keep records of phone conversations.
This guide comes from Citizen Muckraking: How to Investigate and Right Wrongs in Your Community from The Center for Pulic Integrity. The publisher, who gave permission for the distribution of this information, is Common Courage Press.
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