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Don’t be Flustered by FOIA: Tips from a Seasoned Records Requester

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries have a better chance of success when the request begins on an informed and rational footing. If new to the process, it helps immensely to read a summary of the statute.

In Michigan, the Attorney General’s office has posted a summary online.

In other states, a Google search, or a stop at your local library, should produce a useful document. To understand the federal FOIA process, a good place to start is the federal government’s FOIA website — or your library.

Before you embark on the formal FOIA process, you may be able to save time by making your request informally, either in person or by phone. Can’t hurt to try. And remember, you don’t have to give a reason why you want a particular record.

Although simplicity of application is usually a stated goal of FOIA legislation, you should take that ideal with a grain of salt. Be explicit about the subject of your inquiry. Details specifying who, where, what, why, when and how should be considered, but don’t overdo it. Erroneous or superfluous details might throw the government searcher off the track. Look for examples of successful FOIA request letters. Revise them to suit your circumstances.

I can’t emphasize too much the importance of staying on an even keel. Pursuing a FOIA disclosure while angry or frustrated can be self-defeating. The same is true of self-righteousness and indignation. Give careful consideration to suggestions that may improve your chances of success. If things don’t go as well or as fast as expected, press for explanations (preferably in writing), but don’t assume that you’re being ignored or mislead intentionally or that there is a conspiracy against you.

The older the information you’re seeking, the longer it may take to recover it, especially if it predates digital storage. (Indeed, agencies are authorized in some instances to destroy records after a specified period.)

Similar considerations apply to the quantity requested. The more you ask for, the longer it is likely to take to assemble (and the more it’s going to cost). Also, if you’ve made some false assumptions about the pertinence of records you seek, you could end up being charged for useless results.

Consider requesting records in smaller, separate batches, one at a time; for example, by calendar quarters instead of years. This will prevent going too far down the wrong path. A variation of this approach is to have a group of friends, associates or classmates each make a small request on your behalf. It may save money, too, because many government agencies don’t charge for small orders.

Check to see if you have the option to view the requested materials and copy them yourself at a specified agency office. In some jurisdictions, this can be done at less cost or even for free.

A denial of your request, in whole or part, generally triggers a right to appeal. The term “denial” embraces a number of different circumstances, some explicit, some not. It’s important to learn the various meanings.

Keep in mind the possibility that the information you seek may be found in other places, public or private. In this day and age, for example, given the interaction between local, state and federal agencies, information originating at one level may very well have been sent to agencies at other levels, all subject to FOIA discovery.

If you suspect and want certified proof that an agency doesn’t have a particular record that it might be expected to have, make a FOIA request in order to get written confirmation that the record doesn’t exist.

Persistence pays off. If necessary, there are non-profit, public service organizations in virtually every state that will help you.

Listen to my radio segment on the importance of reforming FOIA in Michigan here.

Jim Lang

Jim Lang, a retired attorney, is a FOIA and open records activist in Michigan.

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