Resource Center

Freedom of Information

Welcome to IRE's Freedom of Information page. Here you'll find IRE resources and external links to help you understand federal or state-level freedom of information law, file requests, overcome obstacles and get the documents and data you need. You'll also find coverage of ongoing Freedom of Information developments and tales of open records battles on our blog Transparency Watch.

Filing requests

 

Know your FOI law

Before you file a request, make sure you know the details about what is and isn't public, what formats you can get the information in and how long an agency has to respond to your request. State open records and meetings laws differ from the federal FOIA, and exemptions, time limits and processing costs vary from state to state.

Guides to the federal FOIA

  • FOIA.gov
    Get to know the law, its reach and its exemptions, and get aggregate data on requests, denials and appeals at the federal FOIA page.  
  • FOIA online
    A few federal agencies have begun participating with this federal site, intended to add transparency to the FOIA process by publicizing requests and responses. 
  • FOI Center
    The Freedom of Information Center is a reference and research library in the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism on the campus of the University of Missouri ... The FOI Center possesses the oldest and most comprehensive Freedom of Information library in the world, with a collection of more than one million articles and documents about access to information at the state, federal and local levels.
  • The National Security Archive, George Washington University
    The National Security Archive was founded in 1985 by journalists and scholars to check rising government secrecy. Its primary functions include "investigative journalism center, research institute on international affairs, library and archive of declassified U.S. documents ("the world's largest nongovernmental collection" according to the Los Angeles Times), leading non-profit user of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, public interest law firm defending and expanding public access to government information, global advocate of open government, and indexer and publisher of former secrets."

Guides to state FOI laws

  • FOIA Advocates
    You can open or download .pdf copies of all 50 states’ public records laws from this page.
  • NFOIC state guide
    Supplies contact information, publications, form letters, and updated resources on all 50 states’ FOI processes. 
  • Open Government Guide
    Complete guides on each state’s open records and open meetings laws.  Guides may be purchased as print or .pdf copies. 

 

Working with FOIA and public information officers

Access to information is rarely as simple as request and receive. It can take considerable time and effort to get access to records -- particularly the records you need. IRE's community of journalist has developed tips and best practices for fighting and winning public records battles.

 

Get help with your request

Between legal help, open records ombudsmen and FOI advocates who will fight on your behalf, you don't have to be alone in your request.

  • Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)
    OGIS is a Freedom of Information Act resource for both the public and government. OGIS is charged with reviewing FOIA policies and compliance. It also resolves FOIA disputes between federal agencies and requesters.
  • FOI litigation fund
    With a grant from the Knight Foundation, the National Freedom of Information Coalition offers legal help on FOI matters. 
  • MuckRock
    MuckRock is an online service that that makes it easy for you to quickly file FOIA requests. MuckRock acts as a request proxy, e-mailing, faxing or mailing the request on your behalf, with the documents returning to its offices and then prepared for the requester's convenience. MuckRock also ensures documents remain private until a project is ready to publish.

 

The latest in FOI

The following sites provide updates on the latest happenings in Freedom of Information, as well as tools for tracking requests as they're made.

  • The Art of Access
    The Art of Access is a blog from the Missouri Journalism School's freedom of information expert, Charles Davis, who authored an open government guidebook by the same name. The blog categorized posts into access tips and different kinds of useful public documents, sorted by beat: "We hope that over time this will serve as a useful, searchable repository for record ideas and tips that will help you get story ideas and suggestions for acquiring records. We’ll also work to tag each post with the chapters it corresponds to in the book – so you can find what you need, when you need it."
  • Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
    The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) is a research center at Syracuse University. TRAC was established in 1989 in order to obtain detailed information from various federal agencies under the FOIA, check its accuracy and completeness and make the data available to the public through its two web sites, TRAC and TRACFed.
  • The FOIA Project
    A project of TRAC, the FOIA project is a comprehensive repository of FOIA lawsuit documents, hosted by DocumentCloud. The FOIA project is soon expandng to include documents pertaining to requests and responses, sorted by government agency.
  • The Government Attic
    The Government Attic provides electronic copies of thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Most are historcial documents, reports on items in the news and other oddities: "Think of browsing this site as rummaging through the Government's Attic -- hence our name."
  • The FOIA Advocate
    The NFOIC open government blog contains analysis as well as aggregation form around the web regarding trends in open meetings and records polices and practices.
  • The FOIA Ombudsmen
    A freedom of information blog from the U.S. National Archives Office of Government Information Services. Weekly FOIA logs are included.

An IRE blog tracking the fight for open records

TRANSPARENCY WATCH

Virginia Supreme Court: FOIA does not cover faculty emails, unpublished research

Faculty emails and unpublished university research can be deemed “proprietary” and withheld under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Supreme Court announced last week.

The law was called into question in 2011 when the American Tradition Institute and Virginia Del. Robert Marshall filed a request for emails of Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and former University of Virginia professor.

According to the Washington Post:

Lawyers for U-Va. turned over about 1,000 documents to Marshall and ATI, led by former EPA attorney David Schnare, but withheld another 12,000 papers and e-mails, saying that work “of a ...

Read more ...

Mississippi Ethics Commission rules in favor of records request for text messages

The city of Tupelo, Miss. violated open-records laws by not providing the Daily Journal with text messages it requested last year.

The paper had requested the texts from the mayor's personal cell phone over the course of three days last October, when a city official resigned, the Journal wrote.

The Mississippi Ethics Commission all agreed that the mayor's texts were considered open records under state open records laws.

"'Any text message used by a city official in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of (the city), or required to be maintained ...

Read more ...

Sunshine Week: A look at what's coming up in freedom of information legislation

In many states, recent or pending legislation could impact the transparency of public information. Though several states are taking strides to make public records more open and accessible, a few seem to be adding obstacles to obtaining public information. Here's a breakdown of what's happened in recent months and what could be on the horizon.

AlabamaSB 191, which passed the Senate in February and is pending in the House, would amend the Open Meetings Act. The bill is chiefly concerned with regulating “serial meetings.” These meetings are used to deliberate an issue, but require no quorum or ...

Read more ...

Sunshine Week coverage of open government violations, FOI laws and more

To celebrate Sunshine Week we'll be sharing exclusive audio, tipsheets and reporting on FOIA battles and open government. Newspapers across the country kicked off the week with stories analyzing FOIA responses and violations. Here's a look at some of the coverage:

 

Few cited for open government violations | Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team

Public officials in Wisconsin can be fined hundreds of dollars for violating open government laws, but only seven citations have been imposed in the past five years for open meetings violations, and none for public records cases,court records show.

Prosecutors say this is because public ...

Read more ...

Mass. newspaper reporter catches city employees burning public records

A reporter from The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass. caught city employees burning reams of public records, all without approval from the state.

Old purchase orders, payroll records and utility bills, along with a handful of other documents, went up in smoke. The city’s public works commissioner “emphasized that all of the records burned in recent weeks were old and useless,” according to the paper.

The revelation has caused all kinds of problems for city officials, who said they “jumped the gun.”

It gets even worse:

"Not only were the DPW records disposed of without permission, the manner in ...

Read more ...

Using new nonprofit law center, Hawaii’s Civil Beat wins access to police misconduct records

In the flood of paperwork that made its way each year to the Hawaii legislature, a shocking statistic slipped under the radar: About once a week the Honolulu Police Department was suspending or firing an officer for misconduct.

Often the offenses were serious – abusing suspects, lying to federal investigators, tipping off drug dealers. And for nearly two decades the information was kept quiet. Legislators paid little attention to the annual reports. Officers who resigned or got suspended for misconduct were shielded by a political loophole in the state’s public records law. Paperwork documenting the wrongdoing was often destroyed.

Civil ...

Read more ...

NYPD denies FOIA request for department FOIA guide

The New York Police Department’s Freedom of Information Law Unit is refusing to release its FOIL guide. Yes, you read that right.

Public records request service MuckRock asked for the document in late December. Last week a lieutenant in the department’s records unit denied the request, calling the guide “privileged as an attorney-client communication.”

You can be sure MuckRock is appealing the decision.

NJ court fact-finder recommends Gannett get its due for winning public records fight over PDFs

If a judge agrees with a court fact-finder, Gannett New Jersey could be getting $542,000 in legal fees stemming from a public records lawsuit.

Gannett filed suit in 2009 after several newspapers asked for municipal payroll records in an electronic format, not PDFs. In August 2012 the company won the “precedent-setting case.”

As for the legal fees, “The borough might have come out ahead if it had cut its losses in 2012, when Gannett first sought reimbursement of $495,491. As the borough continued to file motions, the media company’s legal fees continued to mount. By April 2013 ...

Read more ...

To speed up ‘FOIA slowpokes,’ journalists mix praise and shame

When I was a reporter at a daily newspaper in Virginia, few things frustrated me more than slow responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. I’d put in my request and wait the allotted response time only to receive a handful of excuses. Sometimes, after weeks of nagging, I’d get the documents. Other times my request was strangled to death by red tape.

FOIA statistics are grim. According to MuckRock, a public records request service, about 27 percent of requests go unfulfilled in the first three months.

But when agencies dig in their heels, reporters often have limited ...

Read more ...

18 Chris Christie investigations coming to a publication near you

WNYC today compiled a clever list of “18 ways Christie and his officials have blocked access to information.”

The release of the subpoenaed documents “exposed the Christie Administration's involvement in Bridgegate show how the Governor's Office has been keeping its decisions and expenditures quiet despite laws that require official business to be made public.”

The state secrets include everything from visitors at the governor’s mansion to State Police overtime data to taxpayer-funded attorneys representing Christie in abuse-of-power investigations.

A handful of lawsuits have already been filed over the exemptions and redactions. We’re looking forward to the ...

Read more ...