Accountability

Published — March 18, 2009 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Filing a FOIA — How to get records out of the government

Introduction

PaperTrail, as our name implies, delights in accessing government records and reports. Now, to celebrate the mid-point of Sunshine Week, here are some hints on how to start your own paper trail. We’re offering links on how to file requests for federal and state records under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act, as well as under state statutes.

Getting files under FOIA has historically been an arduous process, with some requests taking years to complete. Responses grew even more sluggish during the Bush years, particularly after 9/11. The new prez has vowed to be different, and in one of his first acts, Obama ordered federal agencies and departments to “act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation” to honor FOIA requests. Remember, the basic assumption underlying the law is that all government records should be public and accessible, unless an official can show reason to exempt them. (Remember, too, that there are plenty of exemptions, including those for national security and privacy.)

Ready to get started?

• For general requests under FOIA, there’s no easier place to begin than the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s FOI letter generator. One key is correctly identifying the agency that’s responsible for housing the info you seek. And try to be as specific as possible in making your request.

• To gain access to your own files, make requests under the Privacy Act. Check the National Freedom of Information Coalition site under the Sample Letters section.

• Although access varies, every state now has open meetings or open records laws. The Reporters Committee has a handy guide to these, too.

Once you’ve filed your request, let us know what happens. Has Obama’s memo facilitated a smoother, quicker process? And check back with PaperTrail later for more Sunshine Week coverage.

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