The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law which gives the public access to information from the government, including records that have not been published in the Federal Register. FOIA was originally passed in 1966, and subsequently refined with many amendments.
Under FOIA, any individual may request access to records from federal agencies, unless the records are protected from public disclosure by one of the nine exemptions, or by one of the special law enforcement record exclusions. Additionally, FOIA requires all agencies to publish their regulations and procedural rules in the Federal Register. Agencies must also have an electronic FOIA reading room with frequently requested material, which you may find at http://www.[nameofagency].gov/foia. FOIA only applies to federal agencies, not records from Congress, the judiciary, nor state or local agencies.
However, all 50 states have passed public information laws, which allow citizens to access information from state and local government agencies.
The federal Freedom of Information Act is codified at 5 U.S.C. § 552.
If you cannot obtain a particular record from the Federal Register or an agency's FOIA electronic reading room, you may submit a FOIA request.
Guides and Sample Requests
From the home page, type the statute number (5 U.S.C. § 552) into the search bar, and select "All Federal." Select the statute from the search results, and click on "citing references" to review case law, regulations, and other resources concerning FOIA.
From the home page, type the statute number (5 U.S.C. § 552) into the "Quick Tools" search bar. Select the statute from the search results, and review the annotations, and resources under the Practitioner's Toolbox.
From the home page, type the statute number (5 U.S.C. § 552) into the search bar. Select the statute from the search results, and scroll down to review annotations, including case law and regulations.
All 50 states have passed versions of FOIA, often referred to as Open Records or Sunshine laws. Access to records from state or local agencies depends on the laws of the state, not the federal FOIA.
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.
For more information, you can search Lexis or Westlaw.
From the home page: All Jurisdictions > States. You may instead select a particular state. Type a suggested search term (see below) into the search bar.
On the Legal Sources page: Legal > Legislation & Politics > State Codes, Constitutions, Court Rules & ALS, Combined. Type a suggested search term (see below) into the search bar.
From the home page: Select "All States," or your state of choice, from the drop down menu next to the search bar. Type a suggested search term (see below) into the search bar.
Suggested Search Terms
sunshine laws, public record laws, freedom of information, foia, records access
Countries around the world have passed freedom of information laws. These resources may help you begin your research.
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.
Suggested Library of Congress Headings
Thank you to Christine Mathias (Law Library Intern 2014-15) for her work on the initial version of this guide. Thank you to Brittany Strojny (Legal Reference Librarian, 2015) for her contributions.