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What is Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

What Can You Request from FOIA

FOIA is used to get “records” or to get factual information.  In the government, a record has a special legal meaning.  Records are required to be retained for a certain amount of time and to be filed into a system of record.  Records cannot be destroyed until they are no longer required to be retained.  U.S. citizens have the right to any of these records unless they fall under certain protected categories.

FOIA requests cannot be used to get opinions or conclusions.

Examples of valid FOIA requests:

  • “Provide all Form 123 submissions from 1/1/2020 to 12/31/2020.”
  • “Provide the total number of landings at KABQ from 1/1/2020 to 1/30/2020.”
  • “Provide a PDF of the presentation used at the Vaccine Symposium held by the FDA on 1/1/2020 given by Dr. George Jetson at 12PM.”

Bad examples of FOIA requests include:

  • “Why did the FDA refuse to answer the question about efficacy?”  – you’re asking for an opinion or conclusion… asking for something that is not a record.
  • “Clarify what Dr. Jetson meant by ‘efficacy is relative’.”  – you’re asking for an opinion or conclusion
  • “Provide any document that shows pre-knowledge of adverse reactions.” – FOIA people won’t do research for you.  They can provide records all day but they won’t dig deep to answer a research question.

How to Get Accomplish FOIA Request

  1. Visit the target agency’s website.  Look / search for the FOIA section.
  2. Fill out the form.
  3. Ask for specific records or factual data.

Where can I learn more about FOIA?

  2. Each branch of the government has their own individual FOIA websites.

FOIA articles

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