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Frequently asked questions
Q: Can I get access to the calendars or schedules of government officials?
A: Yes, you generally can so long as the calendar is an agency record and not a private document which the government official keeps confidential. Consumer Federation of America v. Department of Agriculture, 455 F.3d 283 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
Q: Can I use FOIA to request access to a settlement agreement the government has entered into?
A: Settlement agreements should be disclosed under FOIA, although some information contained within them may be withheld under various exemptions. The Justice Department has long had a policy supporting release of settlement agreements. Title 28, part 50.9 of the Code of Federal Regulations states the Department’s policy to promote open judicial proceedings generally.
Q: Can I use FOIA to get copies of government officials’ e-mail?
A: E-mail messages are public records, covered by FOIA. However, just like any other correspondence from government officials, one of the exemptions to FOIA may prevent the content of the e-mail from being disclosed.
Q: Can I get the FOIA log and copies of recent FOIA requests to a government agency?
A: Yes, you should be allowed access to logs and requests made under FOIA. Exemption 6 of FOIA allows an agency to withhold information only if releasing the information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” There is nothing inherently private about FOIA requests or logs.
Q: I submitted my FOIA request awhile ago and it hasn’t been granted or denied. When can I sue?
A: If an agency doesn’t comply with the time limits in FOIA — generally answering the request in 20 days — then a requester can sue. However, it can often be a good idea to exhaust all appeal remedies before suing in court.
If an agency denies a request within the time limit, then there has to be an administrative appeal before a court will allow a lawsuit for the information to go forward.
Q: How can I obtain the FBI files of a notable person who has recently died?
A: Request them directly from the FBI. When someone dies, his FBI file becomes subject to release pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act.
According to the FBI, it does not maintain an FBI file on every citizen in the country. For those on whom it does have a file, the Privacy Act can prevent its release until the subject dies.
The file contains reports on FBI investigations as well as documents such as rap sheets. A rap sheet is a list of information taken from fingerprint cards, arrests, federal employment, naturalization, or military service. An individual may obtain a copy of his or her own rap sheet by requesting it directly from the FBI.
Just because someone has died, it does not mean you will receive everything contained in his FBI file. The bureau may still assert a basis independent from privacy for withholding information contained in the file. For example, the FBI withheld files on former Beatles band member John Lennon for a quarter-century after his death, claiming their release could cause “military retaliation against the United States.”
Q: What if a criminal defendant says the release of documents under FOIA will impair the defendant’s right to a fair trial?
A: Exemption 7(b) prevents the release of information that “would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”
Q: What documents are reporters who are covering a major natural disaster in their communities legally entitled to, and what information, if any, can legally be shielded from them?
A: The Federal Emergency Management Agency may have the most important records on the federal response to a disaster, including financial assistance. FEMA, however, has historically been slow to release information in the wake of disaster.
Federal officials have, in the past, restricted media access to disaster-struck areas. However, news organizations — notably CNN — have challenged these restrictions, including after Hurricane Katrina, and won in court.
Experts have suggested reporters may consider negotiating coverage and access with officials, for example by agreeing not to publish names of disaster victims until their families have been notified of the circumstances.
Other records experts suggest looking at the Storm Events Database from the National Climactic Data Center — a government database of storm events around the country, including hurricanes and floods. Fields in the database include: date and time the storm event began; event type; states and counties hit; latitude and longitude of the location; property and crop damage values; and injuries and fatalities.
For information about cleanup, experts suggest using the Individual Contract Action Reports created by the Government Services Agency. This could be relevant as FEMA and other agencies contract with local businesses in cleanup and repair.