House Democrats Release a New Citizen's Guide to the Freedom of Information Act
Journalists, educational institutions, nonprofits, private corporations and members of the public make use of the records law.
In recognition of Sunshine Week, House Democrats released on Thursday an updated citizen's guide to the Freedom of Information Act.
The annual Sunshine Week celebrates and champions open government and transparency. Journalists, educational institutions, nonprofits, private corporations and members of the public make use of the records law.
“American democracy depends on openness for government accountability,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, in a statement. “Committee Democrats are empowering the public by making it easier to access government records with this citizen’s guide to FOIA. By boosting transparency, we offer all citizens the ability to serve as a fundamental check on government officials abusing our democratic institutions.”
The guide -- shared with Government Executive ahead of publication -- covers the following topics: what records can be requested under FOIA; how to make a FOIA request; the possible fees and waivers; exemptions to records requests; the role of the Office of Government Information Services (the federal FOIA ombudsman that is housed in the National Archives); and how to file a FOIA lawsuit.
“Agencies generally have 20 business days to process a FOIA request. Agencies may seek up to ten additional days to process a request,” the guide reads. “If the agency requests an extension, the agency must notify the requester and identify the ‘unusual circumstances’ that prompted the need for additional time. If the agency needs an extension that exceeds the ten days, it must allow the requester an opportunity to modify the request, or to arrange an alternative time frame for processing the request.”
As outlined in the guide, the FOIA exemptions are: classified documents related to defense and foreign policy; information on an agency’s internal personnel rules and practices; information that has to be withheld under other laws; trade secrets and confidential business information; internal agency communications; documents that show personal privacy interest; law enforcement documents; records relating to financial incisions; and geological and geophysical data and information.
The guide also includes sample letters for FOIA requests and appeals with specific lines for various individuals and groups who may be filing records requests.
The committee released its first edition of this guide in 1977 and has released other versions in the subsequent years.
The most recent updates to FOIA came in 2016 with legislation that codified the “presumption of openness,” created a new chief FOIA officers council and instructed agencies to consider partial disclosures if the full disclosure is not feasible, among other things.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department released new FOIA guidance that underscored the need for a “presumption of openness,” which followed related guidance Attorney General Merrick Garland issued last March. House Democrats praised the Biden administration for both.