For fifty years, one of the most powerful laws available to Americans has lived in relative obscurity, primarily the wheelhouse of corporate competitors, conspiracy theorists, and a few intrepid journalists, researchers, and dedicated truthers.
These days, the Freedom of Information Act, signed into being on July 4th, 1966, is finally having its coming out moment as a beautiful bastion of democratic idealism. From Hillary’s emails to your latest local story, the fact that most of the materials and relationships generated by your tax dollars are yours to know and have, that that right is protected by laws federally and state-by-state, is slowly but surely becoming common knowledge.
So now that you know about it, how can you make this everyday superpower work for you? Whether you’re interested in the CIA’s role in the Iranian coup of 1953 or just want the city to get around to fixing your sidewalk, public records can help shed light on the way your government is helping or hindering the world around you.
MuckRock has five tips for instantly improving your early forays into the bureaucratic rabbit hole of FOIA
5. Be not afraid.
After all, the Government is in charge of arming your police, auditing your taxes, educating your children. This should not deter you from asking it questions. In fact, it should compel you to do just that. These are the people in charge of arming your police, auditing your taxes, and educating your children. You’re in charge of keeping them honest.
FOIA and state records laws like it are some of the most idealistic laws we have on the books. They’re some of the few that permit rather than paralyze action. And they do little to forward the mission of a functioning democracy if they’re not used. The important thing is: don’t be afraid to ask.
4. Be specific.
The Freedom of Information Act and state laws give the public the right to records. They don’t entitle you to an answer to any question you might have. The easiest way to ensure that your question won’t be rejected right out of the gate is to make sure it’s phrased in the form of a document.
Interested in how your town decides which streets to plow first? Rather than ask just that - “How do you decide which street to plow first?” - phrase the question using the documents that might be generated in that process: “Any and all policies, directives, or other guiding material regarding the removal of snow in this town.”
This may seem like a broader request, but, in fact, it helps the records custodian identify responsive materials in terms of the paperwork that they do keep.
Better yet, know the name of the document you want or any other specific information you can gather. A request for the specific form on which an agency is supposed to keep information or a request for emails from a specific web address will be a lot easier for a records officer to deal with than a request for “all materials related to snow plows” or “All emails to this office,” meaning that they’ll likely be able to get you materials more quickly and with a fee, if applicable, lower than if they need to search through all of their records.
It’s not unusual for an agency to ignore or refuse a request for being too burdensome - in fact, many laws allow for it - and the ability to limit your request by time frame, area, or particular document can go a long way in avoiding an outright rejection to materials you have a right to see.
3. Be prepared to provide proof of death.
Coping with death can take on a whole new step as a FOIA requester, for whom the moment of death becomes the moment the newly departed’s files become fair FOIA game.
As a rule, investigatory files, military records, or other such files are only available after the individual has passed away, and it’s best to provide an obituary or other proof of death, unless the figure was a well-known personality. Want to know what dirt the FBI has on Beyoncé? Unless she signs their waiver, you’ll have to wait until the Queen is dead.
For those that are interested in their own files, the need for a waiver still applies, but, of course, that’s a lot easier to get.
2. Familiarize yourself with the local law.
The easiest way to know what to expect from an agency or to know when to call “bs” is to be familiar with the law.
Resources and organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, state Attorneys General, and, of course, MuckRock, can help provide examples, guidance, and a supportive community.
There are plenty of practices that agencies engage in to avoid the hassle of answering public records requests. For example, a small town might take a play out of the CIA’s book and claim to be unable to either “confirm nor deny” it has a particular set of records …
that’s typically not an exemption it can claim and knowing that can help you challenge it.
Not all agencies are looking to weasel out of work, though. Some simply may be unclear on the tenets of the law or how to access the materials you want. Knowing, for example, how many days an agency has to respond to provide materials will help you confidently and correctly challenge shortcomings, regardless of their causes.
1. Be prepared to follow up, provide the tracking number, and wait.
Once you’ve submitted your request, be prepared to follow up and keep track of the details the agency provides you. Send a follow up when the legally-allotted response time has passed and send follow ups on a consistent basis; MuckRock’s system opts to send a follow up every two weeks, unless the agency provides a more specific estimated completion date.
Take note of any internal tracking numbers provided by the agency and include these on all communications you send regarding the request. Doing so will help you keep your records straight, as well as help you correct any errors the agency might make.
It can take a long time for an agency to finally get you its response, but even if it does and even if that response is ultimately a rejection, don’t get discouraged. There are plenty of reasons, good and bad, that an agency might take its time or provide you with nothing, and if one request doesn’t work out, you’ll have more experience and better luck the next time around.
The idealism of democracy is dependent on the power of the people, and FOIA offers the people the power to hold their government accountable and to its word. But it’s up to you to take it.
Image via Warner Bros.