How the Freedom of Information Act Works


The Future of the FOIA
People took to the streets of New York City in protest in February 2017 after the White House denied access to several major U.S. media outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, to an off-camera briefing. KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

If history is any indicator, the FOIA will continue to evolve. Maxson notes the CEI v. OSTP case in particular could be indicative of FOIA's ongoing evolution. "Simple self-report of important information will not suffice," she says. "As with other realms of government activity in the Trump era, the future of FOIA will likely require that we look to the courts to uphold a higher standard of American ethics."

As the U.S. moves forward under a new administration, many are wondering how else the FOIA will change over the next four years and beyond.

Peters addressed the question of whether President Donald Trump could change the FOIA in a piece he wrote in October 2016 for Columbia Journalism Review, writing "He alone couldn't amend the law, but he could affect its implementation." Peters explains that Trump has the power to influence​ how​ statutes ​and amendments are applied, and his pick for attorney general (which we now know is Jeff Sessions) may allow him to influence the government's legal arguments regarding the FOIA [source: Peters].

But in his email Peters' says his biggest worries about the future of FOIA are regarding the media's role in uncovering important information. "I wrote a ​piece​ about the biggest ​modern ​threat to U.S. press freedom​," he says, referencing his article about government secrecy and a free press published in early 2016. "I said it was ​'government attempts to shield information and events from public view' — that's my broad concern for the FOIA."

Author's Note: How the Freedom of Information Act Works

Following the FOIA over time provides important insight into America's political and judicial history. It also underscores the critical need for governmental transparency on a variety of issues, as well as a specific protocol for all citizens seeking access to documents that could and do affect policies and freedoms. Fully understanding the FOIA also means recognizing its limitations and potential loopholes, and the implications these could have as the country moves forward under a new administration.

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Sources

  • American Presidency Project. "Statement by the President Upon Signing the "Freedom of Information Act." July 4, 1966. (Feb. 7, 2017) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=27700
  • Ciaramella, C.J. "The Freedom of Information Act—and the Hero Who Pioneered It." Pacific Standard Magazine. June 29, 2016. (Feb. 7, 2017) https://psmag.com/the-freedom-of-information-act-and-the-hero-who-pioneered-it-868e5b55e7b6#.kpy46uoe4
  • Department of Justice. "Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act." (Feb. 7, 2017) https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/oip/legacy/2014/07/23/intro-july-19-2013.pdf#p5
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation. "History of FOIA." (Feb. 8, 2017) https://www.eff.org/issues/transparency/history-of-foia
  • FOIA.gov. "How to Make a FOIA Request." (Feb. 7, 2017) https://www.foia.gov/how-to.html
  • Obama White House. "Transparency and Open Government: Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies." Jan. 21, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2017) https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/transparency-and-open-government
  • Peters, Jonathan. "State court rules that local agencies can use a classic CIA tactic to evade FOI requests." Columbia Journalism Review. June 6, 2016. (Feb. 7, 2017) http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/new_york_freedom_of_information_glomar.php
  • Peters, Jonathan. "What Trump could (and couldn't) do to restrict press freedom if elected." Columbia Journalism Review. Oct. 27, 2016. (Feb. 7, 2017) http://www.cjr.org/united_states_project/donald_trump_lawsuits_press_freedom.php
  • Maxson, Nayeli. Email interview. (Feb. 14, 2017)
  • Peters, Jonathan. Email interview. (Feb. 10, 2017)
  • RCFP. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Federal Open Government Guide." https://www.rcfp.org/federal-open-government-guide/federal-freedom-information-act/who-may-use-foia

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