- “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy – or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
So wrote the author of The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. In those amendments, rife as they are with compromise, rights were conferred that purport to allow us to say what we will, to have our press unfettered, to worship, or not, as we see fit, to ensure that no representative of government takes without just compensation, searches without good cause, proceeds without due process, wrests incriminating testimony from an accused, or sends a person to trial without legal counsel. All good concepts, if only conceptually observed. The rough and tumble of our courts have since and continue to shape and reshape what these and other rights mean. Yet, nowhere in the rights conferred was there specifically granted, though it received much rhetorical treatment, a right by the public or any member of it, to know what its government was up to.
It is only within the last forty years that any such right was conferred to American citizens. Beginning in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act was passed by Congress. States began to feel the pressure and passed their own versions. As is the propensity for such things, the release of information, not a natural thing for a government to do despite the best advice of its founders, is strictly regulated. What that means is that there are classifications of types of information not available for release under nearly any circumstance. For the rest, as any good legal draftsperson knows, when you want controversy, you can build that in.
Freedom of Information Acts, at the federal and state level, divide information into categories and provide restrictions within those categories. Two areas of particular interest to many people are military and law enforcement files. Each category has restrictions to the information that are much more under the control of the keepers of the information than the seekers. National security, on-going police investigations, or the very existence of the information sought provide a relatively easy, and at times nearly foolproof, means of keeping the information under wraps. Costs of obtaining the information fall upon the seeker, as does the burden of showing in a court that the information exists, is not privileged in some way, is not part of some law enforcement effort, or will not bring the nation to its knees if exposed.
The American Civil Liberties Union website located at https://archive.aclu.org/library/foia.html has a much more detailed explanation of the nuts and bolts of Freedom of Information Acts in various states and the basic steps anyone needs to request and obtain information. It is much more detailed than we have room for here and provides a very good primer that should get you started. If the information you seek is held by a state rather than federal government agency, start with the state’s website (see links below) and navigate your way through to the agency you need. Also, a web search using Freedom of Information Act yields a great deal of information. Good luck and good hunting.
Freedom of Information Laws by State
Neil Wilkinson is a practicing attorney and holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Kennesaw, GA and Master of Laws (LL.M.) from the University of Georgia School of Law. Neil is also an adjuct professor of Intellectual Property Law in the MBA program at the KSU Michael Coles School of Business. He has published articles in legal and general interest publications, as well as poetry and short fiction in regional publications. With two novels completed, A Day in the Life of A Reasonable Man, a picareque farce involving a fussy, overly-grammatical everyman who finds himself the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the most powerful televangelist in America, and Laughing Academy, a psychological/legal suspense novel, Neil continues work on other novels in various states of construction. Currently, he is seeking literary representation.