FOIA Exemptions

While the records you've requested might be covered by FOIA, the information contained in the records may relate to certain subject areas that are exempt from disclosure under FOIA. FOIA contains nine exemptions that might impact your request:

  1. Classified Documents--information classified in the interests of national security or foreign policy can be withheld (§ 552(b)(1)(A)).

  2. Internal Agency Personnel Rules-- information relating to internal agency practices is exempt if it is a trivial administrative matter of no genuine public interest (e.g., a rule governing lunch hours for agency employees) or if disclosure would risk circumvention of law or agency regulations (e.g., an employee's computer user id) (§ 552(b)(2)).

  3. Information Exempt Under Other Laws--an agency is prohibited from disclosing information that protected from disclosing under other federal laws. For example, federal tax laws prohibit the disclosure of personal income tax returns (§ 552(b)(3)).

  4. Trade Secrets or Confidential Commercial Information--this exemption applies to trade secrets (commercially valuable plans, formulas, processes, or devices) and commercial information obtained from a person (other than an agency) that would be likely to harm the competitive position of the person if disclosed (such as a company's marketing plans, profits, or costs (§ 552(b)(4)).

  5. Internal Agency Memoranda and Policy Discussions--in order to protect the deliberative policymaking processes of government, internal agency memoranda and letters between agencies discussing potential policy options are exempted from disclosure (§ 552(b)(5)).

  6. Personal Privacy--private data held by agencies about individuals is exempt if disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy, but a person is not prevented from obtaining private information about themselves (§ 552(b)(6)).

  7. Law Enforcement Investigations--this exemption allows the withholding of information that would, among other things, interfere with enforcement proceedings or investigations, deprive a person of a right to a fair trial, breach a person's privacy interest in information maintained in law enforcement files, reveal law enforcement techniques and procedures, or endanger the life or physical safety of any individual (§ 552(b)(7)).

  8. Federally Regulated Banks--information that is contained in or related to reports prepared by or for a bank supervisory agency such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve, are exempt (§ 552(b)(8)).

  9. Oil and Gas Wells--geological and geophysical data about oil and gas wells are exempted from disclosure (§ 552(b)(9)).

It is beyond the scope of this guide to describe each exemption in exhaustive detail. Suffice it to say, most FOIA disputes involve disagreements over the scope and application of these exemptions. For more information on each exemption, see the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's excellent booklet on How to Use the Federal FOI Act.

Other than exemption number 3 -- which relates to information exempt under other federal law -- these exemptions are permissive, not mandatory. This means that FOIA allows an agency to refuse to disclose otherwise covered records, or to redact portions of documents, but it does not compel the agency to do so. For more on the discretionary nature of these exemptions, see the U.S. Department of Justice's FOIA Guide.

An agency must state which exemption it is relying on when it withholds documents or redacts information. In addition, agencies are required to disclosure all non-exempt information, even if it is contained in a record that contains other information that is exempt from disclosure. In other words, if an exemption only applies to a portion of a record, the agency must release the remainder of the document after the exempt material has been redacted.

If you believe an agency has improperly used one of these exemptions to deny your request, see the section of this guide on What Are Your Remedies Under FOIA which describes the courses of action you can take to enforce your rights under FOIA.

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