“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 19, UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Freedom of information is a fundamental ideal in American society. According to our federal laws, the American public have the right to know about the activities of the government. Government records are the people’s records by law.
The Freedom of Information Act was proposed by John Moss, a Democratic Congressman who believed that “government secrecy could end in a dictatorship.” He argued that the public needed adequate knowledge of government actions and decision-making processes in order to make intelligent decisions about their government and particularly elected representatives.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law, saying, “A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”
The Freedom of Information Act is one of the most significant laws ever passed by Congress. It protects the right of American citizens to access government information, such as records from federal agencies, unless the information is classified. Federal agencies are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request for them, except for specific types of protected information. FOIA requests must satisfy three requirements: the request be made in writing, the request must reasonably describe the records being sought, and the request must follow the agency’s FOIA regulations.
By making records of federal agencies available upon request, FOIA protects the public’s right to inspect government documents. FOIA and other transparency laws are intended to make our government more open, so we (the public) can participate in decision-making and also hold politicians accountable for their actions. Public records are vital for protecting our right to know how our taxes are spent and what our government officials are up to.
National Freedom of Information Day is an annual event celebrated on March 16th. The holiday honors the Freedom of Information Act and highlights its importance for American citizens. The holiday also celebrates the March 16th birthday of President James Madison, a strong advocate for transparency in government. On Freedom of Information Day, the American Library Association gives awards “to recognize those individuals or groups that have championed, protected, and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know.”
FOIA 101: Tips and Tricks to Make You a Transparency Master: A compilation of FOIA advice from MuckRock.
The FOIA Wiki: is a free and collaborative resource on the Freedom of Information Act, provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Federal FOIA Request Samples: Sample letter templates for requests, appeals, and fee waivers, as well as Privacy Act letters for access, appeals, and amending records.
State FOIA Request Samples: Sample letter templates for each state that you can use for preparing and submitting your open records request under your state’s public disclosure laws.