What Do JAZZ and FOI Have in Common?
Freedom. Creative Freedom & Freedom of Information.
In honor of April being Jazz Appreciation along with Records and Information Management (RIM) Month, we thought we’d share a bit about the history of the Freedom of Information Act that was signed back on July 4, 1966, long before the internet was born.
FOIA was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson to give the public rights to access records from any federal agency. The law became effective the following year. “I signed this measure with a deep sense of pride that the United States is an open society,” said President Johnson.
How Did FOIA Come About?
John Moss, a Democrat from Sacramento, California, was voted into Congress in 1952, during the Cold War and an era of government secrecy. In 1955, he held hearings about government transparency and conducted investigations into cases of federal agencies withholding information that should have been made available to the public. According to Moss, “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information that is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”
Amendments That Strengthened FOIA
- Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972
- Federal Privacy Act of 1974
- Presidential Records Act of 1978
- Freedom of Information Improvement Act of 2016
Who Can Make FOIA Requests?
In general, any U.S. citizen, foreign national or organization can make FOIA requests. The records of all executive branch agencies and departments are subject to the FOIA, while the law doesn’t apply to those of Congress, the federal courts, the president and his immediate staff, in addition to the vice president.
Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, the public can access most presidential records through the FOIA five to twelve years after the commander-in-chief exits the White House. FOIA also doesn’t apply to state governments; instead, each state has individual open-records laws.
How Does FOIA Affect State & Local Government Agencies?
Although the federal government is required to have a central website to allow for FOIA requests, the state, county, and local government agencies don’t have a central location for handling FOI requests; instead, each agency manages and responds to its requests individually. That’s where JustFOIA’s solution steps in.
Federal agencies process more than 800,000 FOIA requests in a year, and those requests revealed things like FBI surveillance records dating back to 1919 (that’s 100 years ago!) and the U.S. escaping the detonation of a hydrogen bomb when their B-52 bomber crashed. Let’s not forget the paper mills who were dumping their toxic waste into our rivers or the uncovering of an American cheese vendor substituting parmesan with wood pulp! Yikes. Fortunately, there has been an enormous amount of accountability established over the decades since FOIA was enacted to keep information transparent for the public. And most recently, the Freedom of Information Improvement Act in 2016 which now requires an online request portal be made available to the public to submit a request for records to any federal agency from a single website (that’s a big deal!).
State, county and local agency freedom of information (FOI) requests today, generally, are related to people seeking information like email records, building permits, arrest records or incident reports, student records for court orders and more. Some of the impressive records we’ve seen made to the public include genealogy information dating back to the 1800s, land surveys, relic photos and foreclosure reports with build in geo-mapping and satellite views made available for the people. A helpful resource for state public records laws is on PublicCitizen’s website.
What Type of Records Can Be Withheld?
Exemptions were filed to enable the federal agencies to withhold information in specific instances: If releasing records would harm our national security or foreign policy, personal privacy, confidential business information, and law enforcement records, among others. However, people have the right to appeal these exemptions if they believe they have not received a proper FOIA response for a request. Read more about how Public Universities are dealing with requests.
How Do You Know Which Agency Has the Information You’re Looking For?
You don’t always know which agency to request information from so it can be difficult to determine. Thankfully, with our age of digital data and the fact that all ‘reading room’ documents from federal agencies are required to be made available electronically for all records dating back to November 1, 1966, it’s made researching for data much easier. If you don’t know where to begin, just ask Google!