One of the most powerful tools available to individual citizens, and to a free press, for assuring that our government remains relatively open and transparent, and that it continues to serve as a government of laws, is the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “generally provides any person with the statutory right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to Government information in executive branch records.”
This access, while very broad, is limited in a number of ways. Judicial records, records of the Congress and legislative branch agencies, trade secrets, law enforcement records, and, for the most part, classified records, are not subject to the provisions of the act. There are nine specific statutory exemptions from the provisions of the FOIA. Nevertheless, the scope of the information available through appropriate use of the Freedom of Information Act is extraordinary.
Many FOIA requests are most appropriately channeled through the National Archives and Records Administration. And, fortunately, the National Archives offers a 13-page online Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Reference Guide to assist citizens in making FOIA requests. The Guide can serve as a good beginning reference for the novice seeker for government records, even providing a sample request letter.
You’ll also find a useful independent guide to filing a Freedom of Information Act request at the First Amendment Center website, entitled How to File an FOIA Request. Because it offers information not available in the National Archives Guide, it is a more than vital supplement, and includes a number of very useful links to other resources.
There is also a much more voluminous 85-page guide from the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform (2005) entitled A Citizen’s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records, in this case reproduced on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. It’s a good adjunct to the first two guides, but perhaps more than you might need for a simple and straightforward request.
Also of considerable utility is the Federal Open Government Guide of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Should you find yourself in need of certain federal governmental information not in the public domain, you should certainly avail yourself of the procedures outlined in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Reference Guide. (Virtually all states have similar provisions and procedures which may also be of use. In Kansas, it’s the Kansas Open Records Act.)