From: r...@pencil.cs.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Using the Freedom of Information Act
Date: 25 Nov 92 01:40:21 GMT
From INSIGHT FEATURES / CONTENTS / November 1992
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Feature Article / 1275 Words
Using the Freedom of Information Act
How To Get
By Mary O'Connell and Patti Wolter
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guarantees citizens access
to information about what the government and its various
bureaucracies are doing. Congress passed the federal Freedom of
Information Act in 1966. Since then, state laws have expanded on
the federal guarantees. The Illinois was effective July 1, 1984.
What it means is that any citizen has the right to follow up on
the records of the institutions governing society--such as property
title and deed transfers, court cases and politician's voting
records. FOIA requests can lead to public disclosure of
information useful to organizers--such as environmental impact
studies or budget allocations to certain projects. In one Utah
case, FOIA requests proved government knowledge of health hazards
(including cancer risk) caused by atomic fallout from testing in
Nevada. In another instance, National Highway Safety
Administration documents disclosed to the public forced the recall
of 500 defective tires.
While federal FOI laws do not apply to state or local
governments, most states have their own open records laws--some of
which are more inclusive than the federal law. Any documents of a
state or local agency which are submitted to a federal agency,
however, automatically become subject to the federal FOIA. Contact
your state attorney general's office for copies of your state's
What Can You Get?
The federal law covers all agencies of the federal government,
from the Pentagon to your local post office. It does not extend to
activities at the White house, Congress, the federal courts or
private corporations. The Illinois law covers all branches of the
state and local government except the judiciary. It also applies
to all local public bodies, including school districts, city and
county governments, state universities, and the innumerable board,
bureaus and committees that spend tax dollars. Local bodies may
have their own FOI regulations.
In general, you're entitled to review and copy public records of
any of these bodies. These can include reports, forms, memoranda,
maps, photographs, microfilms, tapes and computerized data. You
can be charged for the cost of searching for and copying the
records; however, if you can prove disclosure of the information
will benefit the public, those fees may be waived. This provision
usually applies to journalists, researchers and scholars.
What Can't You Get
The law assumes you are entitled to information unless specified
otherwise. Exemptions are for such information as:
--classified material (federal);
--information that would invade personal privacy, such as
medical records, personnel files, student records (although other
laws guarantee you access to your own files);
--trade secrets, sealed bids, exam questions and answers--the
kind of information that would give you unfair advantage over
--investigatory records which, if released, would "impede law
enforcement, disclose confidential sources or investigative
--documents concerning government regulation or supervision of
--internal agency memoranda and policy discussions;
--oil and gas wells (location of and other trade
How Does It Work?
Formal written requests for information (as opposed to inquiries
in person or over the phone) are the only requests considered as
falling within the FOI guidelines and subject to the law.
Mention in your letter that you are asking for information under
the FOIA. Identify the source that led you to this agency. (For
example, send a clipping that mentions the study you want, or give
the name of the person who referred you.) Describe what you want as
specifically as possible (documents, letters, bills, financial
records relating to the sale of the former school building at 1211
Oak St.). You are not required to explain why you are making the
Mention that you will expect a reply within seven days (10 days
for the federal government). If you want copies of records--not
just the chance to look at them--you can specify how much you are
willing to pay for copying, in case your request turns out to be
bigger than you expected. Keep a copy of all correspondence.
Once you submit your written request, the government must reply
within seven (or 10) working days. They can give you the
information, ask for an extension, or turn you down.
Extensions cover situations where the records are stored
elsewhere, where they require an extensive search, where the agency
wants time to review them for exempt material or to check with
another agency involved in the case, or where the seven-day limit
is "unduly burdensome." Extensions cover the same period as the
Be persistent. Despite deadline requirements for releasing
information, in practice some agencies will take months (or even
years) to fulfill an FOI request. At the same time, if you can
prove you need a document urgently--for example, for a court case--
you can also persuade the agency to meet your request early.
Getting What You Want
The more targeted your request for information, the more likely
you are to get the specific information you need. This means
filing your request with the appropriate agency of office as well
as knowing what kinds of documents you're looking for (as opposed
to asking for general information on a subject). Most large
agencies have a designated FOI officer to handle requests; if no
such officer exists, it is a good idea to call and find out how to
best direct your letter.
Federal law requires each agency to issue quarterly indexes of
its records dating back to July 4, 1967. Illinois law requires
each public body to make available "reasonably detailed" lists of
its records and information on how they are stored. The
information must be comprehensible even to those who don't
You can also call an agency and ask about records on your
subject, trying to first identify what will be most useful to you.
Also, if the information you need is not stored elsewhere,
sometimes visiting the office and viewing the documents there,
rather than than waiting for copies to arrive in the mail, is
What If They Say No?
Under provisions of the FOIA, once you make a written request
for information, the burden of compliance with the law is on the
agency. If the agency denies your request (not answering within a
time limit is a denial), they have to say why that information is
exempt. If only a part of what they ask for is exempt, they have
to cut that part out and send you the rest.
The first step in appealing a denial is to write a formal letter
citing the date and basic information of your original request, the
date of the denial, and a statement that you believe the denial
violated the FOIA. Send the letter and copies of all previous
correspondence to the head of the agency (state or local) or to
specified federal appeals offices.
If you get no action in 20 days of your request or appeal, you
can file a lawsuit provided you have the appropriate copies of the
paper trail). If you win, you can still be awarded attorneys' fees
if the material is considered of significant public interest.
For a 32-page booklet, How To Use The Freedom of Information
Act, contact the FOI Service Center, c/o Reporters Committee, 1735
Eye St, NW, Suite 504, Washington DC 20006, 202-466-6312. The book
contains an actual copy of the act. It also summarizes and
explains how to use the act; list Supreme Court cases which are
relevant to the act (and their rulings); contains a directory of
addresses for federal agencies; and gives sample letters for
requests, appeals, a filing a lawsuit. Cost is $3.
-- 30 --
Mary O'Connell and Patti Wolter edit The Neighborhood Works, the
newsletter of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2125 W North
Ave, Chicago, IL 60647. 312-248-4800.
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