Freedom Of Information Act

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Freedom Of Information Act

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act has been pegged by some as one of the more important federal laws that help make this country a democracy. Signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act allowed for transparency -- partial in some cases -- across the federal government and all of its agencies.

Before the Freedom of Information Act, the public would have to prove that they have a legal “need to know” in order to have access to certain federal government records. The Freedom of Information Act helped change that “need to know” to a “right to know.” As a result, the tides were changed and instead of the public proving a “need to know,” the federal government now had to prove a “need to keep secret” in order to keep records from the public.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order as soon as he took office in January 2009. The order ensured the citizens of the United States that his administration would be dedicated to providing an “unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

The Freedom of Information Act has helped to expose many misconducts by the federal government, allowing the public to feel more confident and safe about what’s really going on behind some closed doors. After all, isn’t that what the United States’ democracy is built on?

Are There Any Exceptions?

Although the Federal Information Act does allow for transparency in many situations happening at the federal level, there are some files and documents that are kept hidden from the public eye. As mentioned earlier, the federal government needs to prove that there’s a legal “need” to keep certain documents out of the public’s hands.

In order to prove that, the federal government will normally resort to one of nine exemptions made under the Freedom of Information Act. Let’s take a look at what these exemptions are:

  • Documents that put national security and foreign policy at risk
  • Documents related to internal personnel rules and practices
  • Documents specifically exempted by other statutes
  • Documents that concern trade secrets and commercial/public information gathered from a person that is considered confidential
  • Interagency and intra-agency memoranda and letters
  • Documents regarding personnel and medical files
  • Documents compiled for law enforcement purposes
  • Documents related to examination, operating, or condition reports about public institutions
  • Geological and geophysical information or data concerning wells

Although there might be a lot of information or documents that fall into those nine exemptions, it’s normally for the public’s own good -- whether there is still an investigation going on, protecting national defense and security, or to ensure that government officials still have some level of privacy.

It’s also important to note that the Freedom of Information Act covers records in all executive branch agencies and departments, but it doesn’t apply to the President, his immediate staff, the Vice President, the federal courts, and Congress. There are other laws that have been passed to give the public access to these other records, such as the Presidential Records Act of 1978 -- which allows the public to access the President’s records 5-12 years after they leave office.

Does the FOIA Apply to the States?

In addition to the exemptions and different departments that the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to, it also doesn’t apply to the state and local governments across the United States.

To combat this, most states in the U.S. have adopted their own laws similar to the Freedom of Information Act with the same goal in mind -- give the public access to the government records affecting their lives on a daily basis.

The states’ laws regarding public records are normally referred to as Open Meetings, Open Records, Open Government, or Sunshine Laws. They typically grant the public access to records concerning state agencies, commissions, boards, and other bodies of government located in the state lines.

Requesting Documents Under the Freedom of Information Act

All the documents that make their way through the federal government agencies listed under the Freedom of Information Act is put in databases that can be found online. If you are looking for specific documents, this is normally the best place to start because you can do the digging yourself and will be much quicker.

Alternatively, you can send in a Freedom of Information Act request if you don’t find what you need publicly. This will involve writing a letter to the federal agency you’d like to search through and describing in detail the information you seek. Most federal agencies will even accept Freedom of Information Act requests through email or an online form.

Most federal agencies will also ask you how you’d like your documents sent to you, whether it be electronically or printed. The only downside to making a request is there is no timeframe that you will receive your information. They process them in order of receipt and some requests will require additional time to complete. This can drag the process on for quite some time.

How to Find Public Records

The Freedom of Information Act will give you access to federal documents, but you might want to find out more personal information about the people contained in those documents. This is where a public records search can enhance your Freedom of Information Act request.

We have all the tools and resources necessary to perform a public records search right here on our website -- and it’s very easy to do! In order to get started, you’ll need to enter the first and last name of the person you’d like to search for in the search engine located below. If you know their last known location, add that information too (this isn’t required).

By hitting ‘Search,’ you will be given numerous matches to the name you entered. You’ll have to dig through and find the right person, but you’ll be able to open their report once found. The report will contain personal information, address history, phone records, arrest history, contact information, public history, and much more.

Ensure you’re ready to open someone’s report before doing so, you never know what you might find.

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