By Jaimon Olmsted, advocacy intern for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division
This July 4th will mark the 50th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). To honor the occasion, Public Citizen is joining our partners at OpenTheGovernment.org in the #50DaysofFOIA campaign, which highlights the importance of the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA, as well as the significance of the critical FOIA reform legislation that is currently pending in Congress.
The landmark FOIA law, enacted by Congress in 1966, gives the public the right to access government records — subject to only nine exemptions for categories of information like national security, privacy, and when disclosure is prohibited by another law. FOIA was designed to be relatively simple to use, as anyone can file a request for information from a government agency and appeal denials of those requests within the agency without legal representation. FOIA plays an essential role in our democracy by allowing regular individuals to monitor the government and hold officials accountable for their actions.
But FOIA is far from perfect. Federal agencies routinely withhold huge amounts of information by applying overly broad interpretations of the exemptions. Although someone requesting information can challenge in court assertions that an exemption applies, lawsuits are drawn-out and costly procedures that often could have been avoided by simply releasing the documents. For the most part, FOIA exemptions are not mandatory bars to disclosure, and agencies may use discretion and release the information in question, but they rarely do. More