By David A. Fryxell Premium

According to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Obama administration acted on its first day in January 2009 to “re-establish the presumption of disclosure for government records” under the FOIA—in other words, putting the burden back on the government to prove why records shouldn’t be open to the public, not the other way around. The act provides public access to records of all executive-branch federal agencies unless those records fall within nine categories of exemptions. These exemptions permit but generally don’t require an agency to withhold documents, such as for reasons of national security. Some federal entities, such as the Smithsonian or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, aren’t considered “agencies” and thus fall outside the law; most, however, follow their own FOIA-like policies. The FOIA doesn’t apply to Congress, the federal courts or to state governments.


Although you can make an informal request by phone, only a written FOIA request formally establishes your rights under the law. Each agency has an FOIA office, which will assign your request a tracking number. Technically, agencies must grant or deny an FOIA request within 20 days, although that deadline is frequently disregarded.

Agencies may charge you the reasonable costs of providing the documents. Generally, though, for non-commercial requests, agencies don’t charge for the first two hours of search time (otherwise charged at about $15 to $40 an hour) or the first 100 pages of copying, or if the total cost is less than $14. Agencies should notify you before incurring large fees, but it’s a good idea to state a maximum amount you’re willing to pay.
Policies vary by agency on whether FOIA requests may be submitted electronically or by fax. When mailing, it’s a good idea to write “FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT REQUEST” on the envelope and to clearly mark your letter as such.
From the November 2009 Family Tree Magazine