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Obama Signs FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, But Government Still Classifies Too Many Documents

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA or FOIL, as in Freedom of Information Law) lets regular people find out what records the government has.  You don’t need special training and you don’t need a lawyer’s advice to exercise your rights under FOIA, but it can be helpful if you have never used the Freedom of Information Act before.  Knowing what records you are seeking can help you get the records rather than spend time waiting or fighting denials.

President Obama just signed into law the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.  Here Are The Improvements

Federal agencies have to put records and documents in electronic format. That should reduce costs for people using FOIA to get important evidence. Government agencies must make frequently requested records available in electronic format also. If the agency misses a deadline in complying with requests under 5,000 pages long, the agency waives its fee. The government agency has less power to withhold information. If the record is over 25 years old, the record is more likely to be disclosed. Mediation will help resolve disputes about FOIA demands. There will be more communication between chief FOIA officers and the Office of Information Policy. FOIA officers in multiple agencies will coordinate to develop policies for more openness. And the public will eventually be able to submit all requests to one website.

The New Changes to FOIA Should Mean More Open and Transparent Government

It should mean more openness and transparency in government. Most importantly, there should be faster compliance with FOIA requests by lawyers, journalists and the public. That means more evidence faster for accident, injury, and abuse victims. It means more government accountability to the people. And it means more direct participation in democracy.

Problems With Government Classification Now

The government does not decide whether to classify documents based on an exact science.  These are judgment calls and officials making classification decisions have broad discretion.  They have no requirement to explain their thinking unless someone files a specific lawsuit challenging the classification decision.  Since the analysis is subjective, agencies sometimes differ about whether to classify the same document.  50 to 90 percent of classified documents could safely be released.

How Does FOIA Help People Who Got Hurt?

Federal and state government agencies generate records regarding major corporate powers, their own activities, and many other entities that function in our society.  Those records can be key evidence in personal injury, product liability, and medical malpractice cases.  They can assist in serious civil rights investigations.  They help uncover wrongdoing and keep the public informed.  For instance, the FDA produces records regarding dangerous drugs and devices.  OSHA has records regarding unsafe workplaces.  New York City has records regarding the New York City Police Department and Fire Department (among a host of other city agencies) may have records about dangerous or abusive conduct.  The list goes on and on for where government records may be held under FOIA.

If you have questions about FOIA requests, call us.