The following overview is excerpted from the Legal Guide of the Digital Media Law Project, run through Harvard’s Berkman Center. The project offers a wide variety of advice on the legal aspects of reporting.
“Freedom of Information” (“FOI“) is a general term for the laws — sometimes called “sunshine laws” — and principles that govern the public’s right to access government records. FOI helps the public keep track of its government’s actions, from the campaign expenditures of city commission candidates to federal agencies’ management of billions of dollars in tax revenues. Without FOI, information-seeking citizens would be left to the whims of individual government agencies, which often do not give up their records easily.
Using freedom of information laws is a simple, and potentially powerful, way of obtaining information about the activities of federal, state and many local governments. You don’t need to hire a lawyer, and no complicated forms are involved—requests can be made in a simple letter. And you don’t need to be a journalist to share what you find with others who are interested in these issues; with nothing more than an Internet connection, you can post the information and make it available to anyone in the world.
Your request can yield information that has a real impact on your community. For example, in 2003, a parent of a student in Texas, Dianna Pharr, spurred by the financial crisis in her local school district, began filing multiple requests under the Texas Public Information Act to investigate the district’s spending and operations. She and other parent volunteers established an online repository for the documents she received and made them available on a local community website, Keep Eanes Informed. Pharr’s efforts received coverage in the local press, and have enabled her community to make informed decisions when dealing with school board proposals. Similarly, in 2006, the nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility used the Freedom of Information Act to get documents that revealed that genetically-modified crops had been sown on thousands of acres in a federal wildlife refuge. A coalition of nonprofits used this information to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating federal environmental law. For other examples of the benefits of sunshine laws, see the National Security Archive’s 40 Noteworthy Headlines Made Possible by FOIA, 2004-2006.
So now that we’ve convinced you of the value of acquiring government records, it’s time to dig into the relevant sections that govern the information you are interested in. Before you start, however, you’ll want to first determine whether the information you seek is held by a federal or state governmental body. This is important because different freedom of information laws apply to the federal government and various state government entities. If you are not quite sure whether you should review the federal or state sections of this guide, you might find the Citizen Media Law Project’s page on Identifying Federal, State, and Local Government Bodies helpful.
The following links will help you to understand and use freedom of information laws to acquire government records:
- Access to records from the federal government: If you are seeking records held by a federal government agency, you will need to review the section on Access to Records from the Federal Government which describes the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). FOIA covers only national agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FOIA does not cover the President himself/herself, Congress, or the federal judiciary. For information on accessing information from these sources, see the Access to Presidential Records, Access to Congress, and Access to Courts and Court Records sections of this guide, respectively.
- Access to records from state governments: If you are seeking records held by your state or local government, you will need to review the section on Access to Records from State Governments in order to understand how to make a request under the relevant state legislation. In many states, local government records can also be requested under the state open records law.
- Practical tips for getting government records: Unfortunately, public officials sometimes deny that they are required to turn over information, deny that the public has any right to information, or fail to provide information in a timely way. To ensure that you get the information you need, you should review the following tips.