Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Quick Overview

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Lately I’ve been carrying out some work involving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). There is tons of information about FOIA on the web including on the official website, however I decided to summarize the main points of this law in an easy to read / digestible format. This article is broken down into three main parts, a brief intro, the main areas covered in the law, and concludes with the exemptions.

The Freedom of Information Act went into effect on July 4, 1967.  The original idea behind the Act is that the people of the country should be informed of all the information that the security of the nation permitted.  Therefore, there were many changes that needed to happen for this Act to pass.  Generally the freedom of information has allowed a lot more people to have access to information that was withheld before.

The Act had to be amended several times in order to become more effective because when it was first introduced it was not very successful.  Some of the reasons for this were because it contained no deadlines for compliance or penalties for violation of the Act.  It would not have seemed important enough if there was no loss, in abiding by the rules.

In 1974, the Act was amended to try and overcome the problems that were evident when it was first released.

The main areas covered within the Act

Index Publication

Each agency is required to publish indexes showing information for public to any issued matter after the Act became effective.

Identifiable Records

Request only has to reasonably describe information required – exact statement not needed.

Search and Copying fees

Up to each agency to issue regulations for recovery and duplication costs of information.

Court Review

Courts may inspect stored records.

Expedited Appeals

Precedence to be given on appeal to cases under Freedom of Information law – except cases the court may consider more important.

Assessment of Attorney fees and costs

Federal Court may assess attorney fees and other fees incurred.


Allows the court to put a sanction of up to 60 days suspension to employees of the agency who were involved with wrongfully withholding information.

Administrative Deadlines

10 day administrative deadline put in place with a 10 day extension under circumstances where agency had to use means that took more time to retrieve the information.

Investigatory Records

Agency can withhold law records if they interfere with enforcement procedures.

Annual Reports by Agencies

All agencies have to submit annual reports containing statistical information on a number of occasions on withholding information and the reasons for the information being retained on or before March 1st of each year.  Anything withheld must comply with the Act or be included in the list of exemptions.

Expansion of Agency Definition

After the 1974 amendment the Act now covers any executive dept, military dept, Government or Government controlled Corp, other establishment in executive branch of Government or any independent regulatory agency.

Therefore the Freedom of Information Act was spread to other agencies and therefore has effected a lot more people since the amendments were made.

Exemptions of the Act

It is also very important to study the exemptions from this Act in order to fully understand how the rules effect each individual agency.

There are a total of nine exemptions from the act.  These have been listed below.

  • Matters authorized under Executive order to be kept secret for national defense or foreign policy
  • Matters related only to internal personnel rules of agency
  • Matters specifically exempted from disclosure by statute
  • Trade secrets & commercial information obtained from a person & privileged / confidential
  • Matters that are inter-agency letters which are not available by law to a party other than the agency in action against other agency
  • Personal and medical files
  • Law enforcement investigation records
  • Geographical information, maps, etc.

Therefore if none of the nine exemptions apply to an agency withholding information, they are therefore in violation of the Act which could lead to the prosecution or penalty of the agency or the persons involved in retaining the information.

For more information and to learn about the latest regarding FIOA, please be sure to visit the official website.

Image Credits: Photo by timJ on Unsplash.

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