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How to Request Public Information

    Accessing records

    • 1). The Internet allows government bodies to place open records online and many have done so. For example, the Library of Congress’ Thomas service allows anyone to search any bill in Congress and the Supreme Court posts its decisions on its website. Executive branch websites typically offer large amounts of public information. Similarly, many state and local agencies post public records on their sites.

    • 2). If a record is not available online, many agencies will respond to a personal visit or a telephone call. State and federal laws as well as agency rules dictate what records the general public may access. Government officials often fulfill such routine requests with little question. State laws do vary on the availability of records. For example, until 2008, Pennsylvania’s open records law assumed that all records were closed unless state law opened them. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintains an online database of state laws regarding the availability of open records.

    • 3). If an agency denies an informal record request, file a formal request. George Washington University’s National Security Archive suggests that FOIA should be a last resort for obtaining federal records. They also point out that the National Archives houses records from 1970 and earlier. Many agencies allow citizens to file FOIA requests online. GWU suggests writing a request clearly and concisely to avoid confusing the FOIA officer, maintaining contact with the FOIA officer without harassing her and remaining non-confrontational. GWU also suggests refraining from filing pointless or frivolous appeals. State procedures will vary, but the suggestions are useful at all levels.

    • 4). If a FOIA officer denies a request, a citizen or journalist will need to file a lawsuit to obtain those records. Such a challenge will need to cite a point of law stating why an agency should release a particular record. Because FOIA officers are supposed to follow the relevant open records law, a win in such a case would indicate either that an agency illegally withheld a record or that part of the open record law is unconstitutional.

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