How do I write a FOIA request? This is a question that you are likely to ask if you are looking for information that you can't find on your own but that should be accessible to you under the Freedom of Information Act.
FOIA and Access to Information
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law that establishes the rights of private citizens to freely access certain types of information from governmental agencies. The law applies to every federal agency of the United States government. It stipulates that each agency must have - and publish - procedures for releasing requested information to members of the general public.
While the law mandates that such procedures exist within each agency, it does not specify exactly how each entity must go about providing public access to covered information. Instead, it is up to the agencies to put a system in place that people who want or need information have to follow. Each agency must take active steps to provide private citizens with details about how they can exercise their rights under the FOIA.
Some information that members of the public have the right to access under the FOIA is published online where anyone who wants to review it can look it up and review it it at any time. However, this is not the case with all information. If you want or need details from a government agency that are not already published online - whether for your own personal information or for a project that you are working on, you will need to write a formal request.
Understanding How to Write a FOIA Request
The process of writing a FOIA request is not complicated. The key lies with educating yourself about the particular procedures required by the agency that holds the information that you need. Start out by visiting the FOIA Websites page on the Department of Justice's website. This page will provide you with links to the FOIA procedure page for every government agency that is required to comply with the law. When you go to the FOIA page for the government agency that has the type of information that you want, you'll need to look for the section that provides you with details regarding the requirements for submitting your request. The heading will typically say "How to Submit a FOIA Request" or something similar. Follow the instructions provided exactly, since failing to do so will likely result in your request being delayed, returned to you for further action, or being denied.
Typical how do I write a FOIA request procedures include:
- Drafting a letter stating the nature of your request.
- Including a clear description of the records that you are requesting, including details such as who wrote it, who received it, the time frame when it was created, and what it is about.
- Specify that you are willing to pay required administrative fees associated with your request, or make a request for a fee waiver (after reviewing the circumstances under which waivers are possible provided on the agency's FOIA website)/
- Submit your request to the department within the agency that has direct responsibility for the type of data you are seeking or the agency's FOIA officer (who will be specified on the website).
FOIA Limitations and Exclusions
It's important to realize that there are some limitations to the FOIA. The fact that the public is guaranteed access to information created and held by government agencies does not mean that you can demand and receive everything that you want to know. The law does not apply to every government body. For example, the U.S. Congress and the federal court system are not required to turn over records to the public upon request. Even within the government agencies, some types of information are exempt from FOIA disclosure requirements.Additionally, it's important to note that the FOIA applies only to agencies of the federal government. If you are seeking information from the state, county, or municipality where you live, you will need to research the disclosure requirements and request procedures that apply in your state. Begin by researching the state-specific laws related to public access if this is the type of search that you are working on.