Requester's Voice: FOIA Advice, Tips, and Tricks

Requester's Voice is a regular series that interviews top FOIA and public records experts about how to get the most out of the request process.

Activists

Steven Aftergood

Maurice Frankel

Chris Meller

Phil Mocek

Harry Scheeler

Edward Vielmetti

Journalists

C.J. Ciaramella (BuzzFeed)

John Cook (Gawker)

Justin Elliott

Phil Eil

Brad Heath (USA Today)

David Jackson (Chicago Tribune)

Jenifer McKim (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

Jennifer LaFleur (Center for Investigative Reporting)

Jason Leopold (Vice)

Kevin Poulsen (Wired)

Brandon Smith

Todd Wallack (Boston Globe)

Brooke Williams (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

Lawyers

Kel McClanahan

Laura Rótolo

Persis Yu

Researchers

Nate Jones National Security Archive

Michael Powell

Runa Sandvik

Ryan Shapiro

MuckRock Staff

Beryl Lipton

Michael Morisy

50 States of FOIA

California

Louisiana

Massachusetts

Missouri

Iowa

Utah

Wisconsin

Image via Wikimedia Commons

53 Articles

Requester’s Voice: Tony Webster on his Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office lawsuit

Tony Webster, a distinguished public records researcher in his home state of Minnesota and prolific writer covering topics such as privacy, public policy, and public records, has been in a fierce court battle with Hennepin County over a request he sent to the sheriff’s office about their facial recognition program. We got him on the phone to give us a recap of the events surrounding the case and to discuss transparency policy and how he sees the case.

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Agency Voice: The Government Accountability Office’s Charles Young and John Bielec

For Congress to get the background and facts they need to consider legislation and oversee the operations of the executive branch, it relies on the Government Accountability Office. Earlier this week, MuckRock had the opportunity to speak with Charles Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs, and John Bielec of the GAO Office of General Counsel.

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Agency Voice: The Office of Government Information Services’ Alina M. Semo

Since the 2007 Open Government Act, the Office of Government Information Services has had a mandate to help mediate disputes between requesters and FOIA offices. With the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, the responsibility of the office has been further expanded, and in this Agency Voice, OGIS director Alina M. Semo shares her view on the challenges ahead for the FOIA community.

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Requester’s Voice: Chris McDaniel of BuzzFeed News

Chris McDaniel is currently a reporter for BuzzFeed News covering execution drugs. This week, Chris lets us in on some helpful FOIA tricks, tells us how the Missouri DOC paid executioners in cash, and talks about battling increasing secrecy in the death penalty world.

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Requester’s Voice: JPat Brown

JPat Brown is MuckRock’s Executive Editor, and he’s been putting off this self-interview for a couple months now. Also, he’s lost weight since that picture was taken.

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Requester’s Voice: Lucy Parsons Labs’ Freddy Martinez

In early 2014, hoping to learn more about StingRay cell phone surveillance by the Chicago Police Department, Lucy Parsons Labs started filing a few requests - and began a two-year journey into unveiling a secret, multimillion dollar surveillance program.

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Requester’s Voice: Beryl Lipton

For over two years, dozens of articles, and thousands of public records requests, Beryl Lipton’s Private Prison Project has given much needed scrutiny to the incarceration industry. In anticipation of a talk Beryl will be giving on Friday, we interviewed her regarding her motivation for starting the project, her methodology for getting records released, and what she’s learned along the way.

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Requester’s Voice: Sam Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero

Sam Sinyangwe is a policy analyst and data scientist with Campaign Zero focused on helping activists across the country better understand and address police violence in America, particularly within communities of color. Sam explains what drives his data-centric activism, and how public records are helping reshape conversations across the country.

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Requester’s Voice: TRAC and FOIA Project’s Sue Long

Sue Long, co-founder of Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and The FOIA Project, is one of the field’s legends. She has been pulling databases out of agencies since they were stored on tape reels — and well before data journalism was a hot trend. She shares her advice to other requesters as well as how she accidentally found herself as a FOIA pioneer

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Requester’s Voice: Campaign for Freedom of Information’s Maurice Frankel

Next week’s Sunshine Week is a special one as we approach the Freedom of Information Act’s 50th anniversary, so I decided to speak with someone who hasn’t had public access as a right for as long as we have in the States. In the United Kingdom, Right to Know was only put into practice in 2005 — and has come under repeated fire by politicians ever since.

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Requester’s Voice: Nate Jones

Nate Jones is the Director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive, and editor of their Unredacted blog. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, he spoke to Michael Morisy about how he got started in public records, why you should always appeal a denial, and how that warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark is totally a real thing.

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Requester’s Voice: Michael Morisy

In Requester’s Voice, I’ve asked dozens of people to share their public records journeys, including how they became interested in requesting and their advice for others. I’ve learned an incredible amount from them. For our sixth anniversary, JPat asked that I turn the tables on myself, and share what I’ve learned since starting MuckRock. Having helped file over 20,000 requests all around the country, hopefully I’ve learned at least something.

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Requester’s Voice: Phil Eil

After nearly four years in self-described “FOIA University,” freelancer Phil Eil’s public record education is approaching graduate level status. The evidence records of Dr. Paul Volkman - whose “pill mill” court case sparked an “epidemic” discourse around prescription drug use in America - took years to obtain from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and even then, the majority of materials were withheld. Now, with the help of the Rhode Island ACLU, Phil is immersed in a court battle for full disclosure. We first spoke with Phil last year, and we caught up with him again for this week’s Requester’s Voice.

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Requester’s Voice: Brandon Smith

Brandon Smith is a Chicago journalist whose work recently caught the nation’s attention after he persevered in getting police video of the Laquan McDonald shooting released, leading to one officer being charged and the chief of police being fired. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Smith talks about how public records gives him a leg up as an independent reporter chasing big stories.

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Requester’s Voice: Jenifer McKim

Jenifer McKim’s recent investigation, Out of the Shadows, is a troubling look into how state agencies failed to protect vulnerable children, leading to abuse, neglect, and even death. But the fight for evidence needed to report the piece began years ago, with a simple public records request.

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Requester’s Voice: USA Today’s Brad Heath

Brad Heath, investigative reporter for USA Today, has led investigations into environmental dangers in schools, prosecutor misconduct, and government surveillance. In this Requester’s Voice, he shares his tips and tactics to navigate the world of FOIA and the story behind his viral public records hit.

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Requestor’s Voice: Harry Scheeler

Harry Scheeler is a citizen vigilante requester, conducting his own audits of New Jersey’s FOI law, the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and helping others in their records retrieval. Last week, MuckRock caught up with Mr. Scheeler to talk about about citizen requesting, the politicization of public records, and how you can help.

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50 States of FOIA: Florida

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. This time, we focus on the state of Florida.

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50 States of FOIA: Illinois

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. This time, we focus on the state of Illinois.

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50 States of FOIA: California

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. This time, we focus on the state of California.

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50 States of FOIA: Missouri

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. This time, we focus on the state of Missouri.

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Requester’s Voice: Brooke Williams

Brooke Williams is an investigative reporter currently working out of Havard’s Safra Center for Ethics, where she investigates think tanks and their impact on public policy. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Williams shares her thoughts on why a culture shift in government openness is more important than a policy change.

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50 States of FOIA: Massachusetts

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. Today we look at Massachusetts.

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50 States of FOIA: Wisconsin

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. Today we look at Wisconsin.

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50 States of FOIA: Louisiana

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. Today we look at Louisiana.

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50 States of FOIA: Utah

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. Today we look at Utah.

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50 States of FOIA: Iowa

The MuckRock 50 States of FOIA Project aims to shed light on what it’s like to work with public records around the U.S., through the voices of requesters state by state. We kick things off today with Iowa.

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Requester’s Voice: Persis Yu of the NCLC

Persis Yu is an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Last March, Yu requested documents describing the incentives and bonuses built into the contracts of private companies the Department of Education hires to collect student loan debt. The documents she received were redacted to the point of being useless, Yu said. After appealing the redactions, the NCLC never heard back from DOE. Earlier this month, the NCLC filed a suit against the department for the documents.

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Requester’s Voice: Justin Elliott

ProPublica’s Justin Elliott discusses the practical and political murkiness of private communications, email retention and requests for government documents.

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Requester’s Voice: Amy Bennett

In March, Amy Bennett of OpenTheGovernment.org spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the need to legislate more efficient FOIA processes. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Bennett spoke with MuckRock about her testimony and her own difficulties submitting FOIA requests to federal agencies.

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Requester’s Voice: Laura Rótolo

Laura Rótolo is a lawyer and advocate at the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, we caught up with Rótolo to discuss the ACLUM’s lawsuit against the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office over records related to the Massachusetts Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Boston Marathon bombing.

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Requester’s Voice: Runa Sandvik

Runa A. Sandvik is a privacy and security researcher, working at the intersection of technology, law and policy. She is a Staff Technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., a Forbes contributor, and a technical advisor to both the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the TrueCrypt Audit project. Prior to joining CDT, she worked with The Tor Project for four years.

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Requester’s Voice: Todd Wallack

Todd Wallack is an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Wallack talks about his own strategies for submitting requests for data, prospects for FOIA reform and infatuation with privacy.

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Requester’s Voice: Michael Powell

Cultural anthropologist Michael Powell studies the impact of government secrecy on the citizenry. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Powell compares transparency in the US to other countries and talks about a bizarre FOIA training video produced by the Pentagon in faux noir style.

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Fighting to free the Gitmo “Camp 7” documents

For nearly five years, Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg has been fighting to compel the Department of Defense to release documents about Guantanamo Bay’s “Camp 7” facility.

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Requester’s Voice: Chris Meller

MuckRock user Chris Meller uses FOIA to satisfy his curiosities about the government’s involvement with day-to-day life. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Chris discusses his experiences with local public records requests and how he has managed to have his questions answered despite fees and inexperienced FOIA officials.

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Requester’s Voice: Julia Angwin

In this week’s Requester’s Voice, ProPublica’s Julia Angwin stresses the importance of finding a person within an agency to help your requesting, and shares a little game that journalists play with one another.

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Requester’s Voice: C.J. Ciaramella

C.J. Ciaramella filed his first MuckRock request in March 2013, and most recently obtained the DEA’s training materials on parallel construction. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, CJ outlines how public records bring together journalists and activists from across the political spectrum.

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Requester’s Voice: Steven Aftergood

A two-time FOIA lawsuit winner against the CIA and National Reconnaissance Office, Steven Aftergood directs the Project of Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. There he writes Secrecy News, the FAS blog, and advocates for public access to government information. For this week’s Requester’s Voice, Aftergood spoke with MuckRock about refining requests and the intersection of science and secrecy.

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Requester’s Voice: David Jackson

David Jackson’s Pulitzer-winning investigations cover topics from real estate and elderly care to youth policies and coal mining. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Jackson stresses the importance of learning from unsuccessful requests and doing your legwork before submitting a FOIA.

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Requester’s Voice: Kel McClanahan

Kel McClanahan is the Executive Director of National Security Counselors. His work in national security and information and privacy law often lands him in the world of public records. In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock caught up with McClanahan to discuss strategy, the FOIA officer’s disposition, and paying it forward.

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Requester’s Voice: Edward Vielmetti

In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock goes hyperlocal with Ann Arbor’s Edward Vielmetti. From parking garages to sidewalks, Vielmetti is plugged in to Wolverine territory. He shows us why working with public documents should extend beyond federal fiddlings and how to impact a local community.

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Requester’s Voice: Ryan Shapiro

Ryan Shapiro’s surgical FOIA tactics sent the FBI scrambling to block his efforts. Shapiro’s deluge of wisdom and narrative sprinkles range from understanding the government’s stance on political dissent to his ongoing “street fight” with the FBI and why our democracy depends on the health of the Freedom of Information Act.

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Requester’s Voice: Julia Horwitz

Julia Horwitz is open government counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). A U.S. District Court recently ruled in favor of EPIC regarding documents being withheld by the Department of Homeland Security. Read about that court battle and more in this week’s Requester’s Voice.

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Requester’s Voice: David Cuillier

David Cuillier is director of the University of Arizona journalism school, as well as president of the Society of Professional Journalists and author of the seminal public records how-to, “The Art of Access.” MuckRock caught up with the FOIA guru to talk about the future of access, bizarre denials and practical strategies for acquiring documents.

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Requester’s Voice: John Young

For lovers of primary documents, there are few sites as rewarding, and beguiling, as Cryptome. In today’s Requester’s Voice, founder John Young shares the method to the site’s madness, how broken public access poisons media and democracy, and why he suggests spending just one hour a year on FOIA.

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Requester’s Voice: Curtis Raye

Curtis Raye is that rare comic who turns to the FBI Vault and PACER in search of material. As every FOIA nerd could predict, he doesn’t have to look far for true tales of the absurd for his new NYC variety show. He just has to be patient. ‘FOIA Love’ mines funny from public records… both light-hearted and dark

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Requester’s Voice: Jennifer LaFleur

Jennifer LaFleur is the data journalism editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting, and has years of experience filing requests for government data. She shares indispensable tips on working with agencies throughout the process, knowing your rights as a requester and crafting stories about transparency.

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Requester’s Voice: Eileen Feldman

Massachusetts-based disability civil rights activist Eileen Feldman has sharpened her records request skills considerably since filing her first FOIA in 2005. She insists that using public records in activism takes effort and vigilance, and pleads for everyone to demand documents in electronic format.

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Requester’s Voice: Phil Mocek

With nearly 300 requests under his belt, Phil Mocek is one of MuckRock’s most prolific users. Here, he shares how he’s used public access to show governmental duplicity, gives his advice for first-time requesters, and talks about some of his favorite requests - and what he would have done differently.

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Requester’s Voice: John Cook

We caught up with John Cook to talk about his FOIA past, leakers and tips for getting back documents.

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Requester’s Voice: Kevin Poulsen

Kevin Poulsen, the news editor at WIRED.com, is currently front and center in one of the higher profile Freedom of Information Act lawsuits currently under way: The fight to have transparency activist Aaron Swartz’s Secret Service files released. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Poulsen explains how WIRED uses public records to get the “big ones,” why leakers are the new FOIA and what’s next in the fight for Swartz’s files.

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Requester’s Voice: Jason Leopold

Jason Leopold has used the Freedom of Information Act to break a number of major stories, from the drugging of Department of Defense detainees to the Biblical justifications the Air Force used for nuclear war to a drawn-out battle with the FBI over Occupy Wall Street documents.

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