For many of us, March 16 is a special day. Happy birthday to James Madison, and happy Freedom of Information Day to everyone else.
National Freedom of Information Day celebrates the ability of people to look at most government records and is observed on the birthday of the man who wrote the First Amendment.
The U.S. Justice Department says the basic function of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “is to ensure informed citizens, vital to the functioning of a democratic society.”
While most people think this is just a law for reporters, it’s not. It is for anyone who wants to check their government’s actions.
The Federal law was passed in 1966, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson and went into effect in 1967. The original law said government documents (at that time only paper documents) are open for public inspection.
Thirty years later, President Bill Clinton signed the Electronic FOIA, which covers electronic documents (texts, emails and other e-documents) as open for public inspection. As with paper documents there are exceptions to what can be released. For example, most classified documents, personnel documents and ongoing criminal investigation files are not open for public viewing.
Under the law, anyone has the right to request access to documents and information, but they must make the request in writing and many agencies have forms the requestor must complete. For complete information about how to use FOIA on the federal level, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press has created a Wiki page at foia.wiki/wiki/Main_Page.
In addition to federal FOIA, states also have open records or similar laws, and most have exceptions for ongoing criminal investigations, juvenile records and other legal procedures.
Idaho’s FOIA was first established in 1990, but includes multiple exceptions, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition. These exceptions include: voting records of the sexual offender classification board; records concerning discrimination investigations; workers compensation records; current and former public employees’ records; income tax information; Idaho Housing and Finance Association records; voter registration cards; trade secrets including academic research and endangered species locations; draft legislation records; and underwriting and claims records of the Idaho Petroleum Clean Water Trust Fund.
Also, Idaho state law does not allow a requester to use the information as a mailing or telephone number list, and some state agencies will require the person to state the records sought will not be used for that purpose.
In Washington, there are almost no exceptions. As explained by the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the state does not have a single law, but a series of laws covering FOIA:
“The Washington Public Records Act is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels. Washington law defines records as ‘any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.’ A recent Supreme Court ruling has said that accident reports are also public records.”
While people can ask any federal, state, county or city government for documents (unless exempted), there are some downsides. Some agencies refuse to implement rules so people can access data. Some state and federal agencies are backlogged, so there are consistent delays in people receiving the information, and some agencies try to litigate their way out of providing the requested data. Many FOI groups fight these problems on a daily basis.
Although citizens now enjoy this privilege, caution is advised. People need to be aware of their rights and potential threats to those rights. Both state and federal legislators can and do change the laws. It is important for everyone to understand if a change is proposed by either state or federal legislators and make their voices heard prior to any passage. After all, as journalists like to say: It is the people’s property and they have a right to it.
Enjoy FOIA Day on March 16, and maybe have a birthday cupcake in honor of James Madison.
Tallent was a journalism faculty member at the University of Idaho for 13 years before her retirement in 2019. She is of Cherokee descent and is a member of both the Native American Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. She also writes for Spokane Faith and Values (spokanefavs.com).