FOIA Facts: Know Your [FOIA] Rights

With apologies to the Clash, know your [FOIA] rights.

You have the right to request anything you want from an agency covered by the FOIA. While they may not give it to you for many reasons, you are entitled to ask for it.

You have the right to either receive the records you request or be told in writing the reason you can’t have the records. In withholding the records, the government must invoke one of the nine FOIA exemptions or three FOIA exclusions. The government must conduct a reasonable search in looking for the requested records. The government may not just tell you that you can’t have it; the government is not your parents. Under the law, you must be given a reason. If you don’t get a reason, don’t be afraid to insist on one—and don’t be afraid to bump it to a higher level. I’ve had agencies tell me I wasn’t entitled to something without any reason. After I persisted, I received a 400 page release!

You have the right to know where to make an administrative appeal of a denial of records. An agency must provide you the name and address of the office that you may make an administrative appeal to.

You have the right to make an administrative appeal. If you are denied records you may appeal it to an administrative appeal officer designated to hear your appeal. Not only do you have the right to an appeal, you must make one before proceeding to litigation in many cases.

You have the right to file a lawsuit for the denial of records once you’ve exhausted your administrative rights. If you believe the agency acted improperly, the FOIA allows you to take the matter before a district court, where the agency must justify its actions. A district court will take a de novo review of the actions of the agency.

Know your FOIA rights, because agency personnel often may not.