For many, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) represented a groundbreaking move toward transparency and open access to previously protected material. Outside of certain restrictions and exclusions, individuals could now request data previously protected by government organizations. These organizations could range from the FBI and law enforcement agencies to public universities. The FOIA applies to the data stored by these agencies unless the agency has shielded the information by virtue of an exemption.
While it might seem like a purely open transfer of information, the FOIA can present some unexpected challenges, including:
- The sheer volume of information: Even though the request might seem simple and straightforward, it is not uncommon for the FOIA results to reveal documentation, follow-up, memos and email conversations. The request could return thousands of pages of data making it difficult to find the right information.
- Failure to recognize the information that is missing: Closely following the first point, is that the astonishing wealth of information could be overwhelming to the requester. With so much information to sift through, it might be impossible to locate the crucial piece of data that is missing. In this situation, the FOIA itself could become an impediment to the success of the case itself.
- Legal battles around the exclusions: The success of the request is often determined by the exceptions that govern the FOIA. These exclusions can include classified information, trade secrets, information tied to the government regulation of financial institutions or some levels of law enforcement records. The amount of gray area in these exclusions can result in complex legal arguments over what information the government agency can and cannot release.
Officials designed the FOIA so that citizens could request information directly from the government agency by which the data is held. While most forms are straightforward, individuals must provide a clear description of the requested information. Do not hesitate to explore this option when government records could potentially strengthen your case.