How the Freedom of Information Act Works

Limitations of the FOIA
Here, archivists prepare government documents for access by the general public. It's because of the Freedom of Information Act that we have access to many such documents. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

There is a lot of governmental information available to the public thanks to the FOIA, including autopsy reports, campus crime information, divorce records and county jail rosters, but even after all the recent changes, the law still has limitations. First, the FOIA gives the public the right to ask for federal agency records; it doesn't guarantee the public the absolute right to have them. People are entitled to make a request and receive a response, but there's nothing in the law that says the agency owes them those records.

There also are a few specific things not accessible through the act:

  • Actual, tangible objects
  • Private information about an individual. The FOIA gives the public the right to ask for it, but whether the information is actually released will depend on if it's in the public interest to have information outweighs the privacy of the person in question.
  • Information that's covered under one of the nine FOIA exemptions:
  1. Any information that's classified for national security purposes.
  2. Records that are only about an agency's personnel rules and practices.
  3. Information that's prohibited from being released because of another statute.
  4. Documents that protect trade secrets or contain information that could damage a company's business.
  5. Memoranda or letters that contain personal opinions, recommendations or conclusions.
  6. Information that would qualify as an invasion of personal privacy (e.g., home addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, etc.).
  7. Law enforcement documents that could interfere with enforcement, deprive a person of a fair trial, qualify as an invasion of privacy, reveal identities of confidential sources, reveal law enforcement techniques or procedures for investigations or prosecutions, and/or endanger a person's life or safety.
  8. Information related to agencies that are responsible for regulating financial institutions.
  9. Documents that protect information related to geological and geophysical data, including maps [source: Department of Justice].