How to File a Freedom of Information Request
By Jonathan Pelto (www.jonathanpelto.com)
When it comes to standing up to the education reform industry and their allies in state and local government, one of the most powerful tools for edu-bloggers and advocacy journalists is to utilize state-level freedom of information laws. Freedom of Information requests, or FOIAs, give us the power to see into the dark places.
While opponents to open government and honesty are hard at work trying to water-down sunshine laws across the country, most states still have relatively good laws on the books that ensure that citizens have the right to obtain public records. Here are some tips to help get you started. If you’d like more information, or need help filing a request, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s the best way to get started?
Although laws differ from state to state, start with your state’s Freedom of Information office, FOI laws generally allow you to get most records from state and local government agencies, departments, institutions, boards, commissions and authorities.
What kind of information can a FOIA be used to access?
In general, agendas, minutes, records of all votes and most documents must be released upon request. Public records usually include information or data which is typed, handwritten, tape recorded, printed, photographed or computer-stored, as well as agency letters, memoranda and reports.
Is there information that can’t be accessed via a FOIA request?
Most laws do exempt certain types of materials from being released such as preliminary drafts of reports, personnel files, certain law enforcement records, records relating to collective bargaining, tax returns and communications privileged by the attorney-client relationship; names and addresses of public school students and certain records where there is a reasonable believe that disclosure may result in a safety risk, such as the addresses of police officers, judges, etc.
Does it cost money to file a FOIA request?
Most freedom of information laws allow public entities to charge for the cost of making copies, however, an increasing number of states mandate that electronic copies must be provided for free if they exist and if the person has asked that they be given the electronic version of the information.
Can I just show up and look at the records or do I have to make a request in writing?
Although most entities must allow public inspection of records during regular business hours, requests for copies must generally be in writing.
Can I send my request by email?
Freedom of Information requests can generally be informal and usually emailed to the head of the public entity, a member of their public relations staff or someone specially assigned the task of handling FOI requests.
What happens if I don’t get a response?
In most situations, if the public entity refuses to release public records, the individual may appeal that decision to their State’s Freedom of Information Commission. The appeal process is usually available on the entity’s website.
A model request follows:
Department of Education
Pursuant to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a copy of the grant application that the Department of Education submitted to the Gates Foundation on or about July 1, 2012. In addition, I would like copies of any correspondence that took place between the agency and the Gates Foundation in the 60 days leading up to submitting the grant or that has taken place since the grant was submitted.
Since I assume the grant application and correspondence is all maintained in an electronic format, I would like those materials sent to me in an electronic format such as in a pdf file, word document, etc.
If you have any questions concerning this request, please contact me by phone or email.