Access to Gov't Information

Who Can Request Records Under FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") gives the right to request access to government records to any person for any reason, whether the person is a U.S. citizen or a foreign national. Requests can be made in the name of an individual or an organization (including a corporation, partnership, or public interest group). Individuals have the same access rights as professional journalists, though journalists who work for established media organizations sometimes receive better treatment from records-keepers.

Access to Records from State Governments

You can access a vast number of state government records by using your state's freedom of information law. All fifty states and the District of Columbia have freedom of information laws granting public access to state government records, most of which are based at least in part on the federal FOIA. However, the laws can vary widely from who can make the requests, to which government body is required to provide access to its records, to the formalities a request must meet.

Access to Records from the Federal Government

If you are seeking records held by the United States government, you will need to become familiar with the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), which was enacted in 1966. FOIA provides access to the public records of all departments, agencies, and offices of the Executive Branch of the federal government, including the Executive Office of the President. FOIA does not cover the sitting President, Congress, or the federal judiciary.

Access to Courts and Court Records

If you’re hunting for information, consider a visit to the courthouse, where you can sift through resource-rich court records or attend (sometimes colorful) court proceedings.

Courts are centers for dispute resolution. They are public forums in which societal norms and values, as reflected in laws, are used to address and correct wrongs. While a number of laws govern the court system, none is so deeply-ingrained as the presumption that court proceedings should be open to the public.

Access to Congress and the President

If you are interested in information contained in records retained by the President of the United States or the U.S. Congress, you should be aware that neither Congress nor the President are covered by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Instead, both the President and Congress have their own set of rules for public access to their records and have traditionally allowed substantial public access to their proceedings and documents.

Access to Government Meetings

Federal, state, and local governments often act through agencies, boards, committees, and other government "bodies." The most familiar examples of these kinds of government bodies are found at the local level -- they include school boards, city councils, boards of county commissioners, zoning and planning commissions, police review boards, and boards of library trustees. At the state level, examples include state environmental commissions, labor boards, housing boards, and tax commissions, to name a few.

Access to Government Records

"Freedom of Information" ("FOI") is a general term for the laws — sometimes called "sunshine laws" — and principles that govern the public’s right to access government records. FOI helps the public keep track of its government’s actions, from the campaign expenditures of city commission candidates to federal agencies’ management of billions of dollars in tax revenues. Without FOI, information-seeking citizens would be left to the whims of individual government agencies, which often do not give up their records easily.

Access to Government Information

This section of the legal guide outlines the wide-array of information available to you from government sources. These sources range from your local city council all the way up to the largest agencies in the federal government. In fact, you might be quite surprised at how much information is available to you. And the best part is that you generally don't need to hire a lawyer or file any complicated forms -- you can access most of this information simply by showing up or filing a relatively simple request.

A Tale of Two Prisoners

This week, a judge ruled that Allan Parmelee, an inmate at the McNeil Island Corrections Center in Washington state, can continue to request public records under the state Public Records Act. According to the Associated Press, Parmelee has requested hundreds of public records about the state troopers, prosecutors, judges, prison guards, and others who incarcerated him for firebombing two cars.


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Oklahoma Curtails Online Access to Court Records

Earlier this week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court adopted new rules governing public access to court records, cutting off all public access to court records via the Internet and limiting public access to other information that has been available in the past.


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PreCYdent: Another Useful Resource for Free Online Judicial Decisions

Below is a video explaining how to use PreCYdent, a new resource for free online court opinions. The coverage of the database is quite impressive -- Supreme Court cases going back to 1759, federal appellate cases going back to 1950, and a good number of federal district court cases since 2004. The site also has a sophisticated search engine and lots of neat Web 2.0 features like a browser widget and a Facebook application.


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Pennsylvania Reforms Open Records Law, Loses Distinction as Worst in the Country

Now that the Wikileaks storm has started to subside, it's time for us to catch up on some items that deserve attention (but haven't been getting it from the CMLP lately).

Last week, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed a bill that significantly reforms the state's open records law, previously regarded as one of the worst in the country.


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Federal Case Law Archive Now Online and Free

Public.Resource.Org and Creative Commons announced that they've released the first batch of case material in their free case law archive. Yesterday's release encompases over 1.8 million volumes of federal case law, including all Courts of Appeals decisions from 1950 to the present and all Supreme Court decisions since 1754.


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Bush Refuses to Fund New FOIA Ombudsman, Takes the Heart Out of Open Government Reform Law

Well, that was quick. Mere weeks after signing the "OPEN Government Act of 2007" on December 31, 2007, which significantly reformed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), President Bush is now attempting to cut out the heart of the OPEN Government Act by refusing to fund the newly created FOIA ombudsman's office.


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Fernando Rodrigues Discusses Access to Public Information in Brazil

Today at the Berkman Center, Fernando Rodrigues, a journalist from Brazil who is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, spoke about "Journalism and Public Information in Brazil." In 2002, Rodrigues launched "Políticos do Brasil," a website that contains approximately 25,000 records of Brazilian politicians showing electoral information


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Bush Signs FOIA Reform Bill; New Definition of News Media Will Benefit Bloggers and Non-Traditional Journalists

In one of his last executive actions of the year, President Bush signed into law the "OPEN Government Act of 2007" on December 31, 2007. The Senate unanimously passed the reform bill earlier in December, and it passed the House of Representatives by voice vote on December 18. The Associated Press is reporting that Bush signed the bill without comment.


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Congress Passes FOIA Reform Bill, Expands Definition of "News Media"

Earlier this week, Congress passed a bill that substantially reforms the Freedom of Information Act and expands the definition of who is a "representative of the news media" under the Act. The bill, entitled the "Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act" or, more succinctly, the "OPEN Government Act of 2007," passed unanimously in the Senate last week and cleared the House of Representatives by voice vote on Tuesday.


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Center for Public Integrity v. U.S. Dept. Health and Human Servs.



Threat Type: 

Denial of Access

Party Issuing Legal Threat: 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Party Receiving Legal Threat: 

Center for Public Integrity

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Court Name: 

United States District Court for the District of Columbia

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Legal Counsel: 

Michelle Johnson

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Verdict (plaintiff)


The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing investigative journalism on issues of public concern, requested to be treated as a representative of the news media for purposes of document requests it made under the Freedom of Information Act. Such a designation would have allowed CPI to pay only photocopying costs, instead of higher processing fees applicable to the general public. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) denied CPI's requests on several occasions.

On October 24, 2007, CPI sued DHHS, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on the question whether CPI was a "representative of the news media" for purposes of assessing processing fees under FOIA. After the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, the court held that, because CPI had a concrete, "firm intention" to use the information from the FOIA requests to publish one or more "distinct works" such as reports and press releases, CPI qualified as a representative of the news media. The court distinguished CPI from groups like Judicial Watch that previously failed to qualify as representatives of the news media because they had only vague plans to publish creative or analytical works based upon FOIA requests in general (and not necessarily the information from any particular request).

On October 2, 2007, DHHS filed a notice of appeal which it subsequently withdrew.


As of August 17, 2007, CPI's bill of costs and motion for attorney's fees was pending with the court.


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