Access to Gov't Information

CMLP Launches New Legal Guide Section on Access to Government Information

Back in January, we began rolling out the Citizen Media Law Project's Legal Guide.

Subject Area: 

Access to State and Local Government Meetings

All fifty states and the District of Columbia have enacted open meetings laws. These laws generally require state and local agencies, commissions, boards, and councils to provide advance notice to the public of their meetings, to permit any member of the public to attend them (although not necessarily to participate), and to provide minutes, transcripts or recordings of meetings upon request at little or no cost.

Access to Congress

Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Nevertheless, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have enacted their own rules and have allowed substantial public access to their proceedings and records. You can obtain access to congressional debates and other proceedings, but you need to obtain gallery passes from the office of your Senator or Representative. In addition, networks like C-Span televise and archive a large percentage of floor debates.

Costs and Fees

Federal agencies are allowed to charge “reasonable” costs for responding to your FOIA request. This typically includes fees for the time the record-keeper spends searching for the correct documents as well as the cost of duplicating those documents. See 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(A).

FOIA breaks down requesters into three categories for determining fees:

Time Periods under FOIA

Technically, government organizations must respond to a FOIA request with a denial or grant of access within 20 business days. Note that the agency must only respond within 20 days; it does not have to deliver the records within the 20-day time period. The time period does not begin until the proper agency or office actually receives your request. Furthermore, under the new 2007 FOIA amendments, the agency may exceed the 20-day time limit if it needs to request more information from you in order to process your request.

Filing a FOIA Request

Written requests are the only way to legally assert your FOIA rights. These should be mailed, faxed, e-mailed, or hand-delivered to the relevant agency’s offices, depending on which methods the agency allows. A quick online search of the "agency's name" and "FOIA" should provide you with specific information about how the particular agency accepts FOIA requests. If you can't find the information through an online search, check the Federal Register, which should include this information.

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:

Types of Records Available under FOIA

Any records created, possessed, or controlled by a federal regulatory agency, cabinet and military departments, offices, commissions, government-controlled corporations, the Executive Office of the President, and other organizations of the Executive Branch of the federal government must be disclosed unless the information contained in the records is covered by a specific FOIA exemption. FOIA only extends to existing records; you cannot compel an agency to create or search for information that is not already in its records.

What Are Your Remedies Under FOIA

You have several options if your FOIA request is denied in whole or in part. First, you can attempt to resolve informally any disputes you have with the responding agency. If informal resolution fails, you should appeal the denial within the relevant agency before taking any other action. If your appeal is unsuccessful and the agency withheld the information because it is classified, you can apply to have the information declassified.

What Records Are Available Under FOIA

FOIA covers records from all federal regulatory agencies, cabinet and military departments, offices, commissions, government-controlled corporations, the Executive Office of the President, and other organizations of the Executive Branch of the federal government. 5 U.S.C. § 552(f). For example, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are all covered by FOIA.


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