How to Fight FOIA Redaction Mistakes

text reacted on paper

Redaction may seem straightforward, but it can be quite challenging. Fighting through the frustration that comes with redacting documents can sometimes feel impossible. This post will give you tools to be more effective by helping you avoid common pitfalls associated with this tedious process.


One of the most popular ways to redact is simple keystrokes (Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-Shift-V.). The document appears redacted until you paste the text into another application that strips formatting. Why does it look redacted but visible in other applications? Some systems or processes do not burn or remove sensitive information.

If you look at an electronic file, be it a word, PDF, photo, or tiff file, most files have pieces of metadata. Metadata redaction is a widespread mistake. Makeshift tools can cause a headache, and removing metadata is not guaranteed. We recommend redaction tools made to protect or seal sensitive information.

Titles Are Not Everything

With titles present, finding information easier. When dealing with a large volume of diverse types of records – manually sifting through the titles and keywords at some point is not realistic. Do not only rely on titles that precede the numbers if you look for a naming convention. In some cases, especially when you have limited staff or are on a deadline, we know that it can be incredibly stressful to ensure information redacts correctly.

failed email address redaction
In this example, a hyperlink under the text block for an e-mail address pops up the "mail to" e-mail.

Redacting Based on Your Gut

You may feel information should be redacted due to the nature of the content. While there may be things you would love to redact, you must follow the law. It is a common mistake we see when you redact based on gut and not the law.

Every state has different exemption laws, and it is constantly changing. New legislation can remove an exemption that no longer can be redacted or add exemptions from those public records requests.

Inadvertently Releasing Sensitive Information

You may think, “I added a block over the text and created a PDF; I’m good, right?” But unfortunately, attorneys representing some of the highest forms of government in the world even redact incorrectly. It’s called “failing to burn” into the document. Agencies make this mistake which results in considerable fines. For example, a university in the northwest was fined over $700,000 for a redaction mistake just like this!

Tips to Avoid Redaction Mistakes

  1. Conduct a “copy and paste test.” Paste your text into a word document to ensure that your information does not copy over.
  2. Remove metadata. Find a tool to burn out your PDF files’ text images and graphics.
  3. Use auto-redaction tools. Find data patterns like social security numbers and dates of birth.
  4. Stay up-to-date on exemption laws. The laws are ever-changing.
  5. Implement a review workflow. It always helps to have a second set of eyes. We recommend a workflow process for the first reviewer to save redactions as a draft and then assign an approver to review and burn them into the document.

How can we help you avoid redaction mistakes?
JustFOIA is a public record request management solution with a built-in redaction tool to help you avoid these mistakes! A few key features include:

  • Auto and manual redaction for data patterns
  • Redaction burned into the document
  • Automatic exemption log to cite the reason for redactions