Act of July 4, 1966, Public Law 89-487, 80 STA...

Act of July 4, 1966, Public Law 89-487, 80 STAT 250, which amended section 3 of the Administrative Procedure Act, chapter 324, of the Act of June 11, 1916, to clarify and protect the right of the public to information., 07/04/1966 (Page 1 of 3) (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, pronounced Foy-ya) was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966.

Its intent was to make it possible for citizens to ask the government for documents that they thought they should be able to read.

Why did people feel the need to pass a law to ask for papers showing how the government makes decisions, especially when a lot of states already had their own Freedom of Information laws?

One of the early advocates of FOIA, Earl English, Dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, testified extensively in front of Senate committees about FOIA in the 1950s and 1960s.

He pushed the Missouri congressional delegation to pass it, asking “what was the point of teaching journalists to look for information, if the information itself was not made available?”

California Congressman, John Moss, is known as the “Father of FOIA.”

Moss simply did not believe that the government should keep secrets from the governed.

He spent 12 years, after he arrived in DC as a new Congressman in 1953, authoring the legislation and pushing two Presidents, Eisenhower during the Cold War and Johnson during the Vietnam war and his fellow Congressmen to support it.

Government agencies’ default mode was to classify documents, whether they were truly protecting national defense, or just protecting government officials from embarrassment over their decisions and actions.

From Moss’s perch on the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee in 1954, he asked the U.S. Civil Service Commission why 2,800 employees had been fired.

He was told it was for “security reasons.”

That sounded vague, but when he asked for more information, he was stonewalled.

Twelve years later, Johnson signed the FOIA legislation.

Moss went on to write the legislation to establish the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

What does FOIA say?

“Except as otherwise required by statute, matters of official record shall be made available, in accordance with published rule, to persons properly and directly concerned, except information held confidential for good cause found.”

That’s pretty vague.

To restate, citizens, you can have any government papers you want, if you have a good reason and we don’t have a good reason to keep them from you.

Who decides?

Congress strengthened FOIA after Watergate, providing a process for review by the courts if the Executive branch claims a need for secrecy.

Who can file a FOIA request?

You can ask to see government-held documents about you, subject to privacy protections for others who might be named in the documents.

You can petition the government to correct inaccurate information about you.

You can sue the government for letting others see private information about you.

The press can make FOIA requests of government documents.

Any state or foreign government or corporation can file a request.

You, or they, might have to go to court to make it happen, though.

FOIA was amended in 1976 to exclude documents relating to:

  • National defense
  • That would affect the stability of a financial institution
  • Internal government personnel and practices
  • Someone being accused of a crime
  • The middle of an investigation.

Does Timeliness Matter?

Government agencies have 20 days to respond to FOIA requests, during which time they must list what documents they are providing in response to the request and which ones they are withholding, as subject to the exemptions, and why.

Why Should We Care About FOIA?

After the BP oil disaster in April 2009, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity used a FOIA request and their own analysis of the documents to determine that two BP refineries were responsible for 97 percent of “egregious willful” OSHA violations in the previous three years.

The  Associated Press found out that the Bureau of Ocean Management, Regulation and Enforcement, despite its own policies, did not conduct monthly inspections of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig.

The New York Times discovered, from a FOIA request, that the blowout preventer had a history of problems before the explosion.

A man in Washington, DC, as a result of a FOIA request, found hundreds of cases of falsified claims of military honors.

The Washington Times, based on a FOIA request, found that members of the Federal Protective Service were using government-issued credit cards to buy gold, gym memberships, clothing and flat-screen tvs.

The Times also found that SEC employees were viewing pornography on their government computers during the workday.

Representative John Dingell, of Michigan, used a FOIA request to determine the state of a cracked bridge connecting Michigan to Canada

FOIA reinforces our American ideal that government reports to us.

Have you ever known someone to file a FOIA request?

Did you know that individuals can file a FOIA request?

Have you read about the results of FOIA requests?

To you and helping your grandchildren learn that the government works for them.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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