Freedom of Information Day: How to submit a request for records – WDAF FOX4 Kansas City

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Posted: Mar 16, 2022 / 04:07 PM CDT
Updated: Mar 16, 2022 / 04:08 PM CDT
by:
Posted: Mar 16, 2022 / 04:07 PM CDT
Updated: Mar 16, 2022 / 04:08 PM CDT
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – March 16 marks National Freedom of Information Day, a day dedicated to reminding citizens of their rights to information and how important it is to practice these rights.
Learning how to submit a public records request isn’t something traditionally taught in schools. But every citizen has the right to request access to public information, and you don’t have to be a reporter, lawyer, doctor or professional of any kind to practice these rights. 
In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law by President Johnson, giving the public the right to access records from any federal agency. Although it’s intended to enhance transparency, FOIA does not provide access to all government documents.
FOIA applies only to federal executive branch agency records, not those held by Congress, the federal judicial system and government agencies at the state and local levels. There are a series of federal and state exemptions that allow agencies to withhold information to protect national security and personal privacy.
Section 7(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140) exempts from disclosure “information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or State law or rules and regulations adopted under federal or State law.”
This limitation is intended to protect individuals’ identities, along with their personal and medical information, but such laws function on a state-by-state basis.
For example, if a requester asks the Department of Health for information related to the number of abortions performed in the state of Illinois during a given timeframe, as well as demographic information, it’s likely the request would be partially denied. 
State law prohibits race and ethnicity from being shared in a data set related to pregnancy and termination, but in Kansas, state law only prohibits the name of the patient from being released, meaning it’s likely they would provide demographic information to the requester.
Record requests can be submitted through an agency’s FOIA office. The request must be in writing and reasonably describe the records being sought out. 
Most federal agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, whether that be via email or through a records portal. Record requests may also be faxed or mailed, though the response time tends to be quicker when done electronically. 
Agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 working days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays. Although agencies are required to acknowledge that they have received your request within 20 working days, there’s no time limit for when agencies must fulfill your request.
In other words, it may take up to a week to receive records back, it could take a year, or even several. However, if the requester is interested in receiving records by a specific deadline, they can contact the agency’s records clerk to receive an estimated timeframe. 
Some records departments ask requesters to pay a fee, which covers the cost and time it takes department staff to collect and compile the records, and redact personal information. However, these fees must be “reasonable,” so if an agency asks for a payment higher than $50, depending on the amount of information being sought, one might be able to negotiate a smaller fee. 
Requesters can ask for a waiver of fees if the information would shed light on the operations of the government, the information is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of those operations, or if the information is not being sought for commercial interest. This fee waiver must be submitted at the time of the original records request submission.
On Tuesday, the Attorney General Merrick B. Garland issued new guidelines to FOIA that seek to strengthen transparency and fairness throughout FOIA administrations.
The guidelines direct federal departments and agencies to continue efforts to remove barriers to requesting and accessing government records and to reduce processing backlogs.
“At the Justice Department, and across government, our success depends upon the trust of the people weserve,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “That trust must be earned every day.”
Under new guidelines, records clerks are strongly encouraged to take reasonable steps necessary to segregate and release nonexempt information from information that is exempt. 
Records clerks are required to do their due diligence to ensure a requester receives any and all information permitted under law, even if a document contains information that may not qualify for public disclosure. To mitigate the withholding of documents, clerks are asked to redact private information and forward the remaining information on to the requester for disclosure.
“The Attorney General’s new FOIA guidelines underscore the Justice Department’s commitment to government that is open, transparent and accountable to the people we serve,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who also serves as the Department’s Chief FOIA Officer, said in Tuesday’s statement. “The Office of Information Policy looks forward to working with agencies to ensure the presumption of openness is applied across the government.”
To learn more about FOIA and how it impacts citizens’ rights, visit FOIA.gov.
For information designed to help ensure proper training and compliance with FOIA across the federal government, please visit the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy website.

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