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Can Just Anyone Get Government Documents?

Stack of Documents isolated on white background
By George Khoury, Esq. on April 17, 2019 12:00 PM

Believe it or not, anyone can request that federal agencies turn over official records. The same is true of state agencies as well.

Under federal law, the Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA, allows anyone to obtain copies of important government records from federal agencies simply by request (and usually paying an associated fee). States have similar laws that apply to state and local agencies. However, not all records are available, and not everything in the available records will be disclosed, as there are several categories of information that cannot be produced for national security, individual privacy, and a whole host of other reasons.

What’s the Point of FOIA?

There are countless reasons why an individual would want to request government documents. They may be interested in government administration; working on a personal, school, or research project; or trying to write a book, blog, or something else, and think that there might be useful or helpful information in the records.

One common use for FOIA requests is to review government spending, actual practices and policies. One less common use is investigating government conspiracies about extraterrestrial encounters.

How to Get Government Docs

Before you make an FOIA request, you should do a thorough internet search to confirm that the documents and/or information you seek isn’t already published online somewhere. Government agencies are required to publish quite a bit of information about the agencies themselves, and their work, and many do so online.

While requesting the documents you want is relatively simple, often, actually getting what you want is a different story. Sometimes it can take a very long time.

The first step is figuring out which agency you want to request information from, then review their website for information about how to make an FOIA request. Some agencies allow these requests via a simple email stating the necessary information, some require you to submit a particular form, and some will only accept requests via standard mail or fax.

Notably, FOIA requests are not free. Agencies can require requesters pay for reasonable costs in searching for the information, as well as costs for copying. Requesters are usually asked to specify how much they are willing to pay, and can opt to have the agency contact them before charging any costs in excess of that amount.

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