Under the federal Freedom of Information Act and public records laws in all 50 states, anyone can request information from federal, state and local agencies like the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency or your local police department. Lots of things can inspire public records or freedom of information requests — government announcements, news stories, Congressional hearings, and more — but once you've got the idea you have to know what to do with it.
In most cases, submitting a request is as easy as sending an email to the right agency, but some agencies require a letter or a fax. Government transparency organizations such as MuckRock and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have prepared simple forms and tools to make the FOIA request process even more straightforward. The federal government also has a new website that allows you to submit and track FOIA requests to a handful of agencies.
If you're not using an online service, you can send a request manually. Pick out a federal agency from a list provided by the Department of Justice, and then drill down to the correct office within the agency to get the appropriate contact details. In some cases, you may have to go to the office's website for more specific contact information. If you don’t know which office has the information you’re interested in, send the request to the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer. For state and local requests, you can use Reporters Committee’s online tools to give you ideas on agencies that might have the information you’re interested in.
The FOIA request itself should include:
- Your name and contact information, including both your preferred method of contact and your preferred records medium (i.e., paper through standard mail, electronic files via email, electronic files via CD, etc.).
- A description of the records you are seeking. The only requirement is that you "reasonably describe" the records. Basically, this means that you must give enough information that an agency employee familiar with the subject would be able to find the records without an undue amount of searching.
- The maximum records/reproduction fee you are willing to pay. You should indicate that you want to be contacted beforehand if the fees are going to exceed this amount.
The fees vary based on the requester, the agency in question, and the nature of the request. The law allows agencies to charge fees to search for, review and duplicate records for commercial requesters. Other requesters may be required to pay some, but not all, of these fees. Requesters from media, educational, non-commercial or scientific entities have special fee status — they don't have to pay search or review fees, but may have to pay some duplication fees. However, a requester who can show that the disclosure she seeks is in the public interest may pay reduced or no duplication fees.
Federal agencies are generally required to respond within 20 working days, granting or denying the request. State and local agencies may have shorter or longer response times. In practice, however, agencies rarely respond on time.
If the agency denies your request (in whole or in part), you can appeal this with the agency (the information on how to appeal should be in the letter you get from the agency). If the agency fails to respond within the allotted time or denies your appeal, you have the right to file a FOIA lawsuit. If you don’t want to file a lawsuit, you can also contact the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which helps to resolve FOIA disputes as an alternative to litigation.