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Freedom of Information Laws: Home

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Overview

All 50 states and the federal government have a freedom of information law, or FOIL, requiring government entities to disclose information. The federal law is called the Freedom of Information Act (5 USC § 552, FOIA). FOIA obligates federal executive branch agencies to proactively disclose certain types of information and respond to requests for disclosure of other information. FOIA does not apply to judicial, legislative, or state government units.

FOIA Generally

FOIA (5 USC § 552) obligates federal executive branch agencies to proactively disclose certain types of information and respond to requests for disclosure of other information. FOIA does not apply to judicial, legislative, or state government units.

Handbooks & Treatises

Government Websites

FOIA Proactive Disclosure

FOIA imposes the obligation to publish certain information even if no one asks for it. Two methods are specified for this proactive disclosure: publication in the Federal Register, or availability "for inspection." Thus, before making a FOIA request it is worth looking at what the agency has already made public.

This information must be published in the Federal Register

  • Org chart
  • Description of actual function of agency departments
  • Procedural rules
  • Substantive rules
  • Changes to any of the above

This information must be made available for "public inspection" - generally available on the agency's website

  • Final administrative opinions and orders.
  • Policy statements.
  • Administrative procedures and staff manuals that impact the public.

Frequently requested records (generally defined as any record that has been requested three or more times) must also be made available for public inspection. Most agencies make this material available via an electronic FOIA "reading room." Examples follow.

FOIA Requests

FOIA also requires federal agencies to appoint a Chief FOIA Officer and create a process for responding to FOIA requests.Therefore, each agency has its own FOIA request process. The 2016 FOIA Improvement Act requires every agency to maintain a single portal for submitting FOIA requests.

Handbooks & Treatises

Advocacy Organization Tools

State and Local Law

Generally

All 50 states have a FOIL law.

Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Public Records Law (GL c. 66 § 10(a)), enacted in 1973, is based on FOIA.

Under the PRL, every record produced by a government entity (state, county, and municipal) is presumed disclosable unless exempted by statute or common law privilege. A PRL records request must be addressed to the entity's "records custodian." Requests may be made in person or in writing, and there are "no strict rules" regarding format, but the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website provides a suggested format for written requests.

Interstate Limitations

While any citizen can access records from a federal agency, there may be some limitations on interstate access to information from state and local agencies. In the case McBurney v. Young, 133 S. Ct. 1709 (2013), the Supreme Court ruled that state and local governments can deny record requests from out-of-state residents. 

 Suggested Search Terms 

sunshine laws, public record laws, freedom of information, foia, records access

International Law

Countries around the world have passed freedom of information laws. These resources may help you begin your research. 

Articles 

Greg Michener, FOI Laws Around the World, 22 J. Democracy 145 (2011), available at http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.neu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/v022/22.2.michener.pdf.

Mazhar Siraj, Exclusion of Private Sector from Freedom of Information Laws: Implications from a Human Rights Perspective, 2 J. Alternative Persp. Soc. Sci. 211 (2010), available at http://www.japss.org/upload/11._Mazhar%5B1%5D.pdf.

Websites

Suggested Library of Congress Headings 

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