The Freedom of Information Act

For more information on Current Legislation, click here

(Sep. 21, 2006) The House of Representatives passed FOIA reform legislation (H.R. 1309) earlier in 2007. The Senate Judiciary committee approved a similar bill, but the legislation (S. 849) is stalled before a full Senate vote. This act is the most comprehensive legislation to reform the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in a decade. Check our mainpage for updates and here for more information about the legislation.

Brief history of the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 formally established the public's inherent right to access government information. Since that time, the following significant amendments have been made to FOIA:

  • The Privacy Act of 1974 - Before this time, if only one word within a document was considered too sensitive for release, the entire record would be withheld. The Privacy Act required a FOIA officer to black out sensitive words or pages and release the rest.
  • Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986 - This amendment dealt with questions of fees to be charged to requesters and protections afforded to law enforcement records.
  • Electronic Freedom of Information Act (EFOIA) of 1996 - Among other things, this act brought electronic information under the jurisdiction of FOIA. It also aimed at speeding up access to records through multi-track processing and expedited access provisions.

Traditionally, debate surrounding FOIA has concerned how much information the public has the right to know, and how much must be withheld because of reasons of national security and privacy.

Since its inception, the FOIA has been responsible for the public release of vital information. More importantly, once information is made public, people have the power to put a stop to undesirable government activity.

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Freedom of Information Act statistics and facts

  • News people may be the highest profile advocates and users of FOIA, but most FOIA requests do not come from the media at all. Private citizens, such as veterans or retirees trying to get information about their government benefits, compose the largest group of FOIA requesters.
  • An Associated Press study shows that federal agencies have been curtailing information flow since 1998, while requests for information have increased. The real clampdown followed the 9/11 attacks, but the trend began before President George W. Bush came to office.
  • Between 2001 and 2003, there was a growth of 60 percent in the amount of documents being classified.
  • The number of classification decisions has increased from nine million in 2001 to 16 million in 2004.
  • In 2003 alone, the cost of classifying documents was $7 billion.
  • FOIA requests reached an all-time high in 2004 of more than four million, representing a 23-percent increase over 2003.
  • About one-third of these requests were denied, leaving litigation against the federal government as the only recourse. In terms of cases against the government, news media are numerically minor players; only 18 of 2,460 FOI legal cases reported involve media companies.
  • Suing the government is becoming harder and harder. Only 4 percent of plaintiffs were able to have their refused FOIA requests overturned by the courts in 2004.
  • There has been a significant decrease - from 40 percent to 3 percent - in government payment of requester litigation fees since 2001, when the standards for plaintiff recovery of attorney fees from the federal government were altered in a U.S. Supreme Court decision. This is an important statistic, as diminishing chances of actually recovering legal fees mean fewer people are willing to take a risk and fight for the information they believe they deserve.
(Excerpt from Lisa Graves March 15 Senate hearing testimony)

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Study on FOIA litigation from 1999 to 2004

Citizen's Guide to FOIA: House Committee on Government Reform (via Federation of American Scientists.

Excerpts

"Freedom of information and openness in government are among the most fundamental founding principles of our government. The Declaration of Independence makes clear that our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be secured only where 'Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.'"
-- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.)
"The public's right to know, backed up by FOIA, is a cornerstone of our democracy, guaranteeing a free flow of information that delivers America's promise of government by, of, and for the people."
-- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
"Too many people in government have, or acquire, an instinct to limit that flow [of information] because they think things work better without people they regard as nosy outsiders prying into what they consider their business. It's not their business. It is all of our business. That is what a free, democratic government is about - you can't have one unless people know what is going on behind government doors."
-- Walter Mears, former Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief
"We are indeed fighting a global war on terrorism that puts unusual demands on the FOIA system. Conservatives and liberals alike should always remember that an ever expansive, ever more intrusive government is ultimately antithetical to the preservation of individual liberty and democratic accountability in pubic affairs."
-- Mark Tapscott, Director of the Center for Media and Public Policy Director at The Heritage Foundation
"One of the things that makes our country unique and powerful as a democracy is our commitment to openness and to holding our leaders accountable to the rule of law. We should not retreat from these principles, even in times of international instability."
-- Lisa Graves, ACLU Senior Counsel for Legislative Strategy
"Our freedom of information laws are the best mechanism for empowering the public to participate in governance. An open government is an honest government that will engender the loyalty and support of its citizens."
-- Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel, National Security Archive, George Washington University
"Unfettered access to government is a principled, and an achievable, reality."
-- Katherine Minter Cary, Division Chief of the
Open Records Division of the Texas Attorney General's Office

We are always searching for more examples of FOIA action. Please e-mail your FOIA stories to info@SunshineinGovernment.org.


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