There is not just one Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The federal government and every state has a Freedom of Information Act, which governs how requests for access to public records are to be handled by government agencies. Public records consist of documents and information collected by the government while overseeing various activities. The federal FOIA was created by Representative John E. Moss in 1966. It has seen adaptions and fluctuating interpretations, but it still protects the public’s right to access public records, with some exceptions.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act is a law that governs the release of public records that are held by the government. It states what records have to be released, what records are exempted, and the procedure that should be followed. The FOIA provides penalties for agencies that do not comply and allows anyone denied access to records to sue. Some of the public records that are included in the FOIA are:
- Census records
- Consumer protection information
- Government spending reports
- Criminal records
- Court dockets
- Legislative minutes
- Professional and business licenses
- Real estate appraisals
- Voter registration
- Sex offender registration
History of the Freedom of Information Act
This regulation was part of the Administrative Protection Act of 1946, but Congress felt that the APA was being used more to withhold documents than to release them. Representative Moss was especially concerned about the misuse of classifying documents that was leading to some government employees leaking them. It took Representative Moss 12 years and six attempts to get the law passed. The Privacy Act of 1974 gave citizens the right to view and correct records the government had collected on them and the right to sue if their information was released. In 1976, as part of the Sunshine Act, the following exemptions were listed:
- National security information
- Personnel policies
- Invasion of privacy
- Criminal accusations against an individual
- Information that could damage criminal investigations
- Information that could harm a financial institution
- Any agency information connected to legal proceedings
Different administrations have had different interpretations of the FOIA. One of the latest changes allows the government to retroactively classify national security information after its has been requested. That could change also, but, for the most part, the FOIA makes it easier to get access to public records.