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FOIA Facts: Ronald Reagan's FOIA Legacy

By Scott A. Hodes, Published on June 20, 2004

Like most government institutions, President Ronald Reagan also left his mark on the Freedom of Information Act. While generally known to the world as an anti-government crusader during his time prior to his presidency, Reagan’s FOIA policies and actions during his tenure as President were completely pro-government.

Reagan’s first major FOIA action was his administration’s policy to defend any case in which there was material that could possibly be exempt under the FOIA. This policy, issued through Reagan’s first Attorney General, William French Smith, changed the way FOIA had been treated in the previous two administrations (Ford and Carter). Prior to Reagan’s administration, agencies often released as much information as was possible, even if some of the information was possibly exempt under the FOIA. Reagan’s policy stayed in effect until President Clinton and his Attorney General, Janet Reno, issued its discretionary disclosure policy in 1993. Unfortunately for FOIA requesters, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft reinstated a policy similar to the one issued by Reagan in 2001, which is in effect as of today.

The next major FOIA change during Reagan’s time was the 1986 FOIA amendments. This legislation (the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-570, 100 Stat. 3207) greatly strengthened the ability of the government to withhold law enforcement records. Prior to the bill’s passage, the level of rationales agencies needed to use to withhold records was fairly high. The 1984 Amendment’s loosened these requirements, strengthening the ability of law enforcement agencies to withhold many law enforcement records.

Reagan also failed to properly fund many FOIA operations at many agencies. This resulted in huge FOIA backlogs and delays in getting information to requesters. While many agencies were able to get their FOIA backlogs to go down during the 1990s, many still struggle to keep up with the demand of FOIA requesters.

Historians, requesters and journalists will debate whether or not Reagan’s FOIA legacy was positive or negative. One thing that no one will argue is that few Presidents have had such a major effect on the FOIA.

[Editor's Note: The FOIA and President Ronald Reagan]