How the Freedom of Information Act Works


How Do You File a FOIA Request?
Every public office must have someone dedicated to handling Freedom of Information requests, and it also must list on its website where requests should be sent. HowStuffWorks/CDC
Every public office must have someone dedicated to handling Freedom of Information requests, and it also must list on its website where requests should be sent. HowStuffWorks/CDC

Any U.S. citizen or foreign national can make a Freedom of Information Act request. Corporations or organizations like news outlets and public interest groups can make requests, too. Journalists and other members of the media don't have different rights to information than anyone else, but they can get reduced rates on fees and faster processing in some situations.

The cost of obtaining records varies, but agencies can charge fees that are deemed "reasonable" and directly related to finding and copying the records being requested. Fees are generally charged between $11 and $28 per hour, but extra fees can apply for computer use; these can be pricey, even as high as $270 per hour [source: RCFP].

Anyone requesting FOIA documents must make an appeal for those documents directly to the agency holding the documents, and to its FOIA office. Every public office must have someone dedicated to handling requests, and it also must list on its website where requests should be sent. For instance, if you need to file a FOIA request with the Centers for Disease Control, which has multiple agencies within it, you'd visit its main FOIA page and follow the instructions there. Requests must be submitted in writing, describing the documents required. Each agency may have its own specific protocol, but most accept submissions via email, web forms or fax [source: FOIA.gov].

How long the process takes, of course, depends. Agencies will usually address requests on a first-come-first-served basis, so the response time will vary depending on how many requests are in the queue, and how complicated they are. If someone is looking for a few pages of a specific document, that request may be addressed more quickly than someone trying to track down hundreds of pages coming from a variety of sources [source: FOIA.gov].

But even after Obama's changes in 2016, which were intended to make the request process take less time and go more smoothly, many journalists say they still have problems with long delays and denied requests. Several writers and reporters at ProPublica outlined examples of their frustrations in a piece about the failures of the act, including senior reporter Charles Orstein. His appeal to the Department of Defense for a story about drug company paying doctors took three-and-a-half years, only to be denied.