EFF Friday FOIA FAQ

State Capitol takes FOIA Requests
By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 19, 2019 1:00 PM

The Electronic Frontier Foundation makes a living suing over privacy rights and other digital freedoms. That's saying a lot for a non-profit organization.

The EFF also lives through demands under the Freedom of Information Act. Anyone -- including people who want to know what really was in Robert Mueller's report -- can make a demand for government records under the FOIA.

Here is a primer, courtesy of the EFF, on how to make an FOIA demand. You may want to pass it along to interested clients, but make sure you know what you're getting into first.

Freedom of Information

The FOIA, along with public records laws in all 50 states, give people the right to request documents from government agencies. That includes the FBI, the EPA, and even local police departments. Combined with the FOIA Amendments of 1996, anyone can ask for copies of federal records about specific matters or compilations of records on subjects. The FOIA laws apply to federal agencies, but not Congress or the courts.

It is not that complicated to make a request. It can be done by email, letter or fax, depending on the agency. The EFF says the federal government allows you to submit and track requests to some agencies online, and lists federal agencies through the Department of Justice.

The main points to include in a request are:

  • Your name and contact information
  • A description of the records you want
  • The maximum records fee you will pay

While information is free, there is a fee for the agencies' searching and making copies. The amount depends on the size of the request and the purpose. For example, media, educational, non-commercial, and scientific entities don't have to pay for searches.

Freedom from Fees

FOIA requests ultimately cost some money and time -- usually 20 working days for a response. That's for granting or denying a request; producing the records typically takes four to eight weeks. Complex requests can take six months.

But it is not always necessary to make a formal request because many government documents are made public on the internet or elsewhere. On the other hand, some documents will never become public.

National security, executive orders, internal personnel rules, and myriad privacy rights will short-shrift FOIA demands. Even Robert Mueller's report, which included a waiver of privacy privileges, redacted pages of information. That included materials related to:

  • Grand jury proceedings
  • Intelligence agencies
  • Ongoing investigations

In other words, you can ask but you may not receive.

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