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Overview

The Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] establishes a presumption that records in the possession of agencies and departments of the executive branch of the U.S. Government are accessible to the people. This was not always the approach to Federal information disclosure policy. Before enactment of the FOIA in 1966, the burden was on the individual to establish a right to examine these government records. With the passage of the FOIA, the burden of proof shifted from the individual to the government. Those seeking information are no longer required to show a need for information. Instead, the “need to know” standard has been replaced by a “right to know” doctrine. The government now has to justify the need for secrecy.

The first step in making a request under the FOIA is to identify the agency that has the records. A FOIA request must be addressed to a specific agency. There is no central government records office that services FOIA requests.

There are three basic elements to a FOIA request letter. First, the letter should state that the request is being made under the Freedom of Information Act. Second, the request should identify the records that are being sought as specifically as possible. Third, the name and address of the requester must be included.

There are several optional items that are often included in a FOIA request. The first is the telephone number of the requester. This permits an agency employee processing a request to speak with the requester if necessary.

Fees can be imposed to recover costs of copying, costs of searching for documents, and costs of reviewing documents. You can request that fees to provide the information be waived or reduced if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester. A key element in qualifying for a fee waiver is the relationship of the information to public understanding of the operations or activities of government. Another important factor is the ability of the requester to convey that information to other interested members of the public.

Specify the form or format in which the requested material is sought.

If you need the information quickly you can make a request for expedited processing by showing a ``compelling need'' for a speedy response.

Each agency is currently required to determine within 10 days (excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays) after the receipt of a request whether to comply with the request. The actual disclosure of documents is required to follow promptly thereafter.

For additional information and background see the Forest Service FOIA page.

Sample Letter

Agency Head [or Freedom of Information Act Officer]
Name of Agency
Address of Agency
City, State, Zip Code

Re: Freedom of Information Act Request

Dear [Name]:

On behalf of the non-profit American Whitewater, I hereby request the following information under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C.§552:

Documents Requested

I request that a copy of the following documents [or documents containing the following information] be provided to me. [The law requires that each request must reasonably describe the records being sought. This means that a request must be specific enough to permit a professional employee of the agency who is familiar with the subject matter to locate the record in a reasonable period of time. Requesters should make requests as specific as possible. If a particular document is required, it should be identified precisely, preferably by date and title. However, a request does not always have to be that specific. A requester who cannot identify a specific record should clearly explain his or her needs. A requester should make sure, however, that a request is broad enough to include all desired information.]

Time of Response

I request that these records be provided within the ten working days required by law. I also request, in accordance with the requirements of FOIA, that any records or segments of records that are deemed to be exempt from the Act be specifically described and correlated with a particular FOIA exemption. If any requested documents cannot be sent because they are not in final form, I request any completed parts and that my order be split to avoid unnecessary delay.

Waiver of Fees

I also request that you waive any applicable fees. The Department of Agriculture has published FOIA guidelines for agencies to follow in making fee waiver determinations. The guidelines, found at 7 CFR, Subtitle A, Part 1, Subpart A, Appendix A, Section 6(a)(1), list six factors to be taken into consideration when assessing fee waiver requests. This FOIA request clearly meets all six factors:

1. The request concerns the operations or activities of the government in managing recreational boating on the … River. [The subject of the request, i.e., whether the subject of the requested records concerns 'the operations or activities of the government]

2. The disclosure of the requested information will contribute directly to an understanding of the subject by the general public with an interest in … Agency management on the …. River.[The informative value of the information to be disclosed i.e., whether the disclosure is 'likely to contribute' to an understanding of government operations or activities]

3. American Whitewater will disseminate a complete analysis of the information to the general public via our website at www.americanwhitewater.org and our bimonthly publication the American Whitewater Journal (circ. 15,000). Both venues cover conservation and access developments affecting whitewater recreationists, and American Whitewater’s publications are an important source of information to this community. [The contribution to an understanding of the subject by the general public likely to result from disclosure, i.e., whether disclosure of the requested information will contribute to 'public understanding]

4. The disclosure of the requested information will contribute directly and significantly to public understanding of how the … Agency is managing recreational boating on the … River.[The significance of the contribution to public understanding, i.e., whether the disclosure is likely to contribute 'significantly' to public understanding of government operations or activities]

5. American Whitewater is a non-profit 501.c.3, public interest organization and has no financial or commercial interest in the requested records. [The existence and magnitude of a commercial interest, i.e., whether the requester has a commercial interest that would be furthered by the requested disclosure.]

6. American Whitewater represents 6,800 whitewater boaters directly, and 100 affiliate canoe and kayak clubs with memberships exceeding 80,000 boaters. American Whitewater's sole interest in the requested records is to advance the public's understanding of the government's policies and practices in managing recreation on public waterways. [The primary interest in the disclosure, i.e., whether the magnitude of the identified commercial interest of the requester is sufficiently large, in comparison with the public interest in disclosure, that disclosure is 'primarily in the commercial interest of the requester]

Accordingly, it is clear that a fee waiver is appropriate in this case, since “disclosure of the information is in the public interest, because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” 5 U. S. C. § 552(a)(4)(A)(iii).

Format of Documents

I request that the information I seek be provided in electronic format, and I would like to receive it on CD-ROM. If documents are not available in electronic format, hard copy is acceptable.

I also include a telephone number at which I can be contacted during the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, if necessary, to discuss any aspect of my request.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

Name
Address
City, State, Zip Code
Telephone number

Enclosures:
Articles of Incorporation
Constitution and Bylaws
[Submitting these documents factors into the determination on the waiver of fees. Contact AW staff if you need these documents to file a request on behalf of the organization.]