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FOIA basics: a primer Shawn Musgrave Editor,

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1 FOIA basics: a primer Shawn Musgrave Editor, MuckRock @shawnmusgrave || @muckrock

2 The Freedom of Information Act  Signed by a (very reluctant) LBJ on July 4, 1966 “I have always believed that freedom of information is so vital that only the national security, not the desire of public officials or private citizens, should determine when it must be restricted.” More FOIA history:

3 The Freedom of Information Act

4 State public records laws  Every state has a statute  Some are better than others: – Exemptions – Response time – Appeal mechanism – Treatment of electronic records  Read up on your state's statute:

5 Central FOI principles  Access is a right, not a courtesy  Presumption of openness  Documents, not questions

6 Access is a right  These are not courtesy requests, and you are not a customer  Requests are legally enforceable  Extensive case law – read up!

7 Presumption of openness  Every government record is subject to FOI  Exemptions must be narrowly, specifically applied  “In face of doubt, openness prevails.”

8 Documents, not questions  Must identify government record  “All documents related to...”  Official familiar with the agency must be able to conduct reasonable search

9 Crafting a FOIA request  What agency?  What document?  What to include in the request?  Where to send the request?

10 What agency?  Particular component, division or unit  Federal, state and federal-in-state  Multiple agency requests

11 What document?  Know the name OR the circumstances  Finding the name: – Administrative procedures and handbooks – Records retention schedules – Annual, semi-annual and quarterly reports – Inspector general or audit reports  Finding the circumstances: – Administrative procedures and handbooks – Public statements and press releases

12 What to include?  Statute name: – “This is a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.” – “This is a request under the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).”

13 What to include?  Clear description of records sought: – “... all arrest reports, including narrative, completed for June 25.” – “... the grant application submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) in fiscal year 2013.”

14 What to include?  Any backup information you have handy: – “This report is required to be completed on an annual basis by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2005.” – “The NYPD administrative handbook, procedure 325-18 (attached in part), indicates that these memos are compiled on a regular basis.” – “An agency spokesperson indicated that such a review was initiated on July 2. The following statement was given to the Bergen County Record:...”

15 What to include?  Valid contact information – Requests can (often) be anonymous BUT give consistent contact information

16 Where to send?  Confirm whether the agency, component or division processes its own requests  Ascertain precise contact information, particularly for state and local agencies – Federal agency contacts:  Email versus fax versus mail  Multiple agencies – start a footrace

17 So you've submitted it...  Confirm receipt in writing, including date received  Know response window — federal is 20 business days, states vary  Be vigilant in followup and anticipate negotiation  Read up on appeals process

18 Troubleshooting  @muckrock or @shawnmusgrave  FOI question board:  FOI-L listserv: listserv listserv  National Freedom of Information Coalition:  Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press:

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