(The following content is courtesy of David Cuillier, University of Arizona)
Planning Your FOIA Request
Public records laws require government agencies to provide anyone the right to look at a record (or pay for a copy) that is held by a government agency subject to the law.
You can become fairly knowledgeable by reading a summary of your state public records law provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press at: www.rcfp.org/ogg. Also, check your state open government coalition or press association for guides they might put out.
Here are some basics of access law:
• No law requires an official to talk to you, but records laws require agencies to let you see documents or data.
• “Record” generally includes any format of recorded material, including paper, audio tapes, video, data, e-mail, and even the electronically embedded properties information in a Word file. Be creative.
• Federal executive agencies (e.g., FBI, but not the Supreme Court or Congress) are subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act. State executive agencies, cities, school districts and other local public agencies are subject state public records law. Be sure to know the name of your state law, and don’t ask for a record from your local school district based on federal FOIA.
• Other laws may apply, such as the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act for protecting educational records or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act for medical records.
• Some records may be kept secret if there is a law that says the record may be kept secret, usually to protect national security, privacy invasion, etc.
• Some laws and agencies require a written request.
• Agencies are required by law to respond to records requests within a certain amount of time, depending on the law. They may provide the records, deny them in whole or in part (legal reason in writing), or say they need more time.
• Most laws are discretionary, which means an agency can give out the information even if an exemption allows them to keep it secret.
• Denials may be appealed to the agency. A requester can also sue, in some states recouping his or her legal fees by substantially prevailing in court.
• When in doubt, ask for the record. It is up to the agency to prove it is secret, not for you to prove it is public.
Sample Records Request Letters – Examples of various types of records request letters.