Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 USC 552), enacted in 1966, allows public access to government information. Individuals are assured the right to a judicial hearing to enforce its provisions.
The Act was amended in 1974, 1976, and 1986 to narrow the scope of FOIA exemptions and the ability of agencies to withhold information. Amendments in 1996 extended FOIA's provisions to electronic records, and requires agencies to package information electronically — via computer diskette, CD-ROM or the Internet, for example — for any requester.
FOIA requires federal agencies, including independent regulatory agencies, to publish certain items in the Federal Register, which include:
- Rules of procedure;
- Statements of general agency policy that have been adopted;
- Descriptions of agency organization;
- Changes in or repeal of existing rules and policies; and
- Descriptions of internal guidelines for carrying out agency functions.
But the heart of FOIA is the requirement that agencies make records available when they receive requests that reasonably describe the records and follow agency published procedures. Agencies may charge for locating and duplicating records, but they must publish the fee schedule. Also, the fees may be waived if the request is in the public interest.
Controversy often develops over FOIA requests when agencies try to deny requests on the grounds that the information sought is exempt from mandatory disclosure. The major exemptions are:
- National defense or foreign policy material classified as secret;
- Agency personnel rules and records;
- Records exempted from disclosure by statute;
- Trade secrets;
- Law enforcement investigations records; and
- Inter- or intra-agency memoranda or letters.
If an agency denies a FOIA request, the person making the request can sue to compel disclosure if the records exist. If an agency fails to produce the records within statutory time limits, that also can be grounds for a suit.
Note: The FOIA is complemented by the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 USC 552), which restricts what the government can do with records that contain information about individuals.
Individuals may copy any or all of an agency record that contains information on them, seek correction of the record, and find out from the agency what it plans to do with the information in the record. Agencies must also publish in the Federal Register their plans for managing such records.