By Chris Adams
Requesting information isn't as simple as placing a call or dashing off a letter and getting a thick manila envelope in your mailbox a week later. Even if you have a right to information, there are certain snags that can hamper your ability to access it.
Filing a request is as simple as writing a letter citing the federal Freedom of Information Act or your state's public records law. You must be as specific as possible in requesting information, and you must make efforts to send the letter to the proper FOIA officer. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press has a helpful site that can help you structure a simple FOIA letter (http://www.rcfp.org/foi_letter/generate.php).
But once the letter is sent, be aware of these pitfalls:
- A bad request: When you write a request under the Freedom of Information Act, it must be specific. Some agencies have tens of thousands of workers and produce millions of documents a year. Your request needs to be specific enough so the FOIA officer who receives it can direct it to the person who actually has the document you want.
- Overwhelmed agencies: Some federal and state agencies are swamped by FOIA requests and take months before action on a request is taken. Other agencies are poorly organized, so requests get lost or improperly shuffled from division to division. The law says that agencies should give you an initial response to FOIA requests within 20 days, but some languish for months or years. If you file a request, periodically call to check on its status.
- Stubborn agencies: Sometimes government officials don't want to give up information. They might know its release could bring embarrassment. Or they might consider collecting the information to be a hassle. They can stonewall you by charging high fees for collecting the information, seizing on technical glitches in your request to say a document doesn't exist or by simply ignoring your request and hoping you go away. Persistence is vital.
- Incomplete information: Agencies may fulfill part of a request but redact - black out - large portions of it. It could be the agency has legitimate reasons to redact the information, or it could be it doesn't want important details - names or dollar figures - to become public.
- Legal barriers: If an agency denies your request for information, you can file an appeal. If the agency denies that, you are stuck - unless you want to hire a lawyer and sue. The government has staff lawyers who are prepared to defend any lawsuit, so choosing to fight can be a long and expensive process - something that deters even the biggest media companies from picking legal fights over every FOIA request that is improperly denied.