FOIA 101: Tips and Tricks to Make You a Transparency Master

Whether it's your first request or your first request *today,* it never hurts to go over the basics. MuckRock's compiled a lot of FOIA advice over the years, and with this project, it's all in one place.

Basics / Intermediate/Advanced / Exemptions / Agency-Specific Advice / Topic-Specific Tips / Presidential Records / Student Resources / State Maps / Ongoing Series

Basics

Five tips for beginners

Fee categories

Leaks and FOIA FAQ

What’s considered a public record?

Intermediate/Advanced

Dealing with excessive redactions

FOIA inspiration from #IRE2017

How to get a faster FOIA response

Tips for better FOIA appeals

Searching for specific sections of records

What to do about “Still Interested” letters

What the 2016 FOIA reforms mean for requesters

Exemptions

Federal FOIA exemptions overview

The Glomar “neither confirm nor deny” exemption

Agency-Specific Advice

CIA

The ultimate guide to searching CIA’s declassified archives

Using exemption codes to find documents hidden in CREST

FBI

The #AppleVSFBI FOIA Primer

Getting your own FBI file

Telling the FBI where to search

NSA

A beginner’s guide to FOIA-ing the NSA

Topic Specific Tips

Autopsy reports

Environmental reports

The JFK assassination records

Immigration records

#NODAPL / pipeline records

Protest records

Private prison records

Presidential Records

Presidential records primer

Trump Administration records

White House’s FOIA exemption

White House visitor logs

Student Resources

College journalist’s FOIA guide

College sports records guide

FOIA 4 Kidz lesson plan

High school journalist’s FOIA guide

State Maps

Response deadline map

State by State records gude

Ongoing Series

#FOIAFriday Round-up

FOIA Slack Chats

Requester’s Voice interviews

Image via the National Archives Flickr

45 Articles

Breaking the law with snail mail, large fees for student newspapers, and whether tweets are public record

Breaking the law with snail mail, large fees for student newspapers, and whether tweets are public record

What’s considered public record or not is not a new debate. But the increasing prevalence of social media use amongst government agencies and officials, such as Twitter, brings up a new debate: If you delete social media posts on an official account, is it a violation of public records laws?

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What you missed from our FOIA Slack Chat with Adam Marshall

What you missed from our FOIA Slack Chat with Adam Marshall

Adam Marshall recently joined us to talk about government surveillance and answer common questions that can stump FOIA requesters. Find out what you missed and details on Friday’s upcoming FOIA chat.

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How open is your government? Find out with our interactive maps

How open is your government? Find out with our interactive maps

For Sunshine Week, we’re excited to launch a new collaboration that makes it easy to explore every state’s public records laws, find sample appeals, and more.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(9)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(9)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, we’re wrapping things up with perhaps the rarest of all exemptions: b(9), the one about wells.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(8)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(8)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. In the home stretch, we tackle b(8) - the financial institution exemption that is as depressing as the robot that shares its name is adorable.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(7)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(7)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, strap yourself in for the long-haul because we’re looking at b(7) - the law enforcement exemption.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(6)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(6)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, b(6): the privacy exemption.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(5)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(5)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, everyone’s least favorite exemption: b(5), the “Withhold It Because You Want To” exemption.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(4)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(4)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, we’re looking at b(4), the “trade secrets” exemption.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(3)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(3)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, one of the more frustrating exemptions: b(3), the “No Homers” exemption.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(2)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(2)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, one of the lesser-known exemptions: b(2), the … uh … lesser-known one.

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Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(1)

Nine Days of FOIA Exemptions: b(1)

With Sunshine Week just around the corner, we wanted to count down the days to our favorite time of year with a closer look at what’s going on behind the black bars: the nine federal FOIA exemptions. Today, we’re kicking things off with the big one: b(1), the national security exemption.

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How to get a faster FOIA response

How to get a faster FOIA response

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of giving a talk with the Educational Writers Association on how to speed up slow Freedom of Information Act requests. Here are tips I’ve seen work over the years, plus a chance to share your secrets - and maybe win some free MuckRock requests.

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Don't FOIA Trump's White House

Don’t FOIA Trump’s White House

One thing we get asked about a lot is if it’s possible to FOIA for XYZ thing that President Donald J. Trump was reported to have done or said. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer is no, for reasons we’ll outline today.

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Guerrilla FOIAfare: How to use exemption codes to find the most interesting documents hidden in the CIA archives

Guerrilla FOIAfare: How to use exemption codes to find the most interesting documents hidden in the CIA archives

As many researchers have learned over the years, government agencies in general and the Central Intelligence Agency in particular often apply exemptions very broadly, and at times, bordering on the ridiculous. Exemption codes, on the other hand, can still be useful to researchers, journalists, and curious citizens; by searching for these codes, clever researchers can find documents that discuss war plans, cryptography, WMDs, and diplomatically damaging information.

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Rules governing the release of autopsy reports vary state-to-state

Rules governing the release of autopsy reports vary state-to-state

For the legal world of the living considers, the deceased generally lack a right to privacy, their government records suddenly subject to disclosure. But in each state, laws limit what can be released to whom.

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To get some immigration-related records, FOIA is the only option

To get some immigration-related records, FOIA is the only option

The United States of America is the primary destination for more members of the global migrant population than any other country. To handle the constant influx of foreign individuals - both legally-authorized and otherwise - across the borders, the federal government relies on a handful of agencies to funnel foreign visitors and residents in and out of the country. The Freedom of Information Act and equivalent state laws can help to shed some light into how the immigration system on all levels is working - or not.

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The JFK assassination records release primer

The JFK assassination records release primer

25 years ago, following the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, President George H.W. Bush signed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 into law. October 26th is the final deadline for the release of almost all records related to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Here’s what you should know.

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The ultimate guide to searching CIA's declassified archives

The ultimate guide to searching CIA’s declassified archives

This guide will tell you everything you need to know to dive into CIA’s CREST archive and start searching like a pro.

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Some FOIA requesters are seeing an uptick in "Still Interested" letters - here's how to deal with them

Some FOIA requesters are seeing an uptick in “Still Interested” letters - here’s how to deal with them

Few things can be more galling for a FOIA requester than to patiently wait on a request for years, only to be told by an agency that if they don’t respond quickly and let the agency know they’re still interested, their request will be closed out. Here’s advice on how to handle “Still Interested” letters.

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Coaches’ contracts are just a records request away

Coaches’ contracts are just a records request away

Though you may not be able to get their plays, it can be pretty straight forward to see how much college coaches are paid.

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How long does your state have to respond to your public records request?

How long does your state have to respond to your public records request?

As part of ongoing project to document every state’s public records law, MuckRock looked at the policies governing how long an agency has to respond to a records request. While most states have clear deadlines, 10 are worryingly vague. Five don’t have any timeline at all.

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The Securities and Exchange Commission's guide to better FOIA appeals

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s guide to better FOIA appeals

Need a guide to crafting your own appeal to some common denials from agencies holding back your documents? Here’s your quick how-to in the words of those winning requesters themselves, put together by 2017’s Most Responsive Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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Looking for something to request? Here's some great ideas from #IRE17

Looking for something to request? Here’s some great ideas from #IRE17

Last week, over 1,500 journalists convened in Phoenix for the 40th Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. And while leaks, scraping, and a number of other cutting-edge techniques were all on display, many attendees brought great FOIA and public records ideas with them. Here’s some of the suggestions I picked up, including stories you can use for inspiration.

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The on again, off again relationship between FOIA and White House visitor logs

The on again, off again relationship between FOIA and White House visitor logs

Until late in George W. Bush’s administration, White House visitor logs appeared to receive only occasional attention, but unless current legal efforts are successful, whatever access the public had to seeing who stopped by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave might soon be gone for good.

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MuckRock’s guide to protests and FOIA: The day after

MuckRock’s guide to protests and FOIA: The day after

In a democracy, the power of the people comes from the ability to hold their government accountable. We’re launching a project to provide a comprehensive list of FOIA resources that will help you to prepare, participate, and investigate protests. Today, we’ll be examining three pivotal protests of the past decade in America – Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson and NoDAPL.

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How to get media requester status for your FOIA requests

How to get media requester status for your FOIA requests

There are a lot of factors when it comes to determining your FOIA request cost, but one of the key ones is which requester category you fall under. Under FOIA fee regulations, there are three broad categories of requesters, and making sure you are classified correctly can mean getting the documents for free or a reasonable fee and being asked to pay thousands - or even hundreds of thousands - of dollars.

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MuckRock's Earth Day Document Guide

MuckRock’s Earth Day Document Guide

Spring is in the air and Earth Day is around the corner. Here are a few ideas from MuckRock to get those requests rolling for next month’s environmentally-focused stories.

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A FOIA 4 KIDZ lesson plan for educators

A FOIA 4 KIDZ lesson plan for educators

FOIA can be slow and strange, but that might be all the more reason to introduce the youth, the future, to it now. For you educators, MuckRock’s made up some materials to assist you in starting a discussion about transparency in government.

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MuckRock's guide to protests and FOIA: The day of

MuckRock’s guide to protests and FOIA: The day of

In a democracy, the power of the people comes from the ability to hold their government accountable. We’re launching a project to provide a comprehensive list of FOIA resources that will help you to prepare, participate, and investigate protests. Today, we’ll be looking at what to look out for during a protest.

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MuckRock's guide to protests and FOIA: The day before

MuckRock’s guide to protests and FOIA: The day before

In a democracy, the power of the people comes from the ability to hold their government accountable. We’re launching a project to provide a comprehensive list of FOIA resources that will help you to prepare, participate, and investigate protests. Today, we’ll be looking at what to know before the protest starts.

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What is a public record?

What is a public record?

Public records can be your direct line to the government. Learn which ones you can and can’t request and how to file your own.

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The EFF's guide to the new and improved Freedom of Information Act

The EFF’s guide to the new and improved Freedom of Information Act

Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have put together a guide to three of the biggest changes Congress made to FOIA this year, and how you can get the most out of your requests.

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A guide to public records and the Trump Presidential Transition

A guide to public records and the Trump Presidential Transition

Now that Donald Trump is President Elect of the United States, a whole new world of FOIA possibilities begins to open up. Here’s your guide on what you can request from the upcoming administration.

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MuckRock's Leaks and FOIA FAQ

MuckRock’s Leaks and FOIA FAQ

With so many hot takes being offered on Wikileaks these days, we thought it would be good to clear the air with a simple primer on the difference between information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and information obtained from leaks.

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A college journalist's guide to public records

A college journalist’s guide to public records

For the savvy college journalist looking to get an exclusive scoop, public records can be the perfect secret weapon. Here’s how you can wield it.

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Coping with rejection: a guide to federal FOIA exemptions

Coping with rejection: a guide to federal FOIA exemptions

At the federal level, nine FOIA exemptions stand between you and records you want. Here’s what they are, what they mean, and what you can do about them.

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Five simple tips to make you a better FOIA requester

Five simple tips to make you a better FOIA requester

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

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MuckRock's #AppleVSFBI FOIA Primer

MuckRock’s #AppleVSFBI FOIA Primer

Two of America’s most famously secretive institutions, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Apple, are squaring off over encryption and backdoors, and three FOIA exemptions stand in the way of those wanting a document-driven view of the fight. That doesn’t mean FOIA fans should give up asking questions though. Here’s our advice on getting documents to help better understand the FBI, Apple, and the fight over keeping devices secure while maintaining national security.

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MuckRock's Presidential records primer

MuckRock’s Presidential records primer

Presidents tend to be a bit different than most people, and appropriately enough, Presidential records are a bit different than most records. Here’s what to know before you FOIA a POTUS.

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How to sift standard forms for crucial pages

How to sift standard forms for crucial pages

Government agencies produce a lot of paperwork, much of it standardized and quite a bit irrelevant to anyone outside the agency. Save yourself processing delays and duplication fees by honing requests for the crucial sections.

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Zen and the art of the Glomar rejection

Zen and the art of the Glomar rejection

Whether a document exists is a yes or no question. But for federal agencies, that question can get a bit more metaphysical.

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You have to tell the FBI where to look

You have to tell the FBI where to look

These two quick tips could make a big difference when requesting public documents from the agency.

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MuckRock's guide to getting your own FBI file

MuckRock’s guide to getting your own FBI file

Typically the FBI will only release the files of deceased individuals. The exception to that rule is when an individual is requesting information about themselves.

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A beginner's guide to FOIA-ing the NSA

A beginner’s guide to FOIA-ing the NSA

Unsurprisingly, the National Security Agency is one of the more difficult federal agencies to get information out of. Want to know if they have files on you? You’re out of luck. Looking for even mundane information, like parking lot complaints? Better lawyer up.

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