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Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. As Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have all recognized, the FOIA is a vital part of our democracy.

Generally any person – United States citizen or not – can make a FOIA request.

A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. You can also specify the format in which you wish to receive the records (for example, printed or electronic form). The FOIA does not require agencies to create new records or to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests.

There is no central office in the government that handles FOIA requests for all federal departments and agencies. Each federal agency processes its own records in response to FOIA requests. There are many different officials at these agencies who work hard every day to make sure that the FOIA works. There are the FOIA professionals who search for and process records in response to FOIA requests, FOIA Contacts and FOIA Public Liaisons who work with FOIA requesters to answer questions and resolve concerns, and Chief FOIA Officers who oversee their agency’s compliance with the FOIA.

After an agency receives your FOIA request, you will usually receive a letter acknowledging the request with an assigned tracking number. If the agency requires additional information before it can begin to process your request, it will contact you. The agency will typically search for records in response to your request and then review those records to determine which – and what parts of each – can be released. The agency will redact, or black out, any information protected from disclosure by one of the FOIA’s nine exemptions. The releasable records will then be sent to you.

The FOIA does provide for the charging of certain types of fees in some instances.

For a typical requester the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for records and for duplication of those records. There is usually no charge for the first two hours of search time or for the first 100 pages of duplication.

You may always include in your request a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If an agency estimates that the total fees for processing your request will exceed $25, it will notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees. If you agree to pay fees for a records search, you may be required to pay such fees even if the search does not locate any releasable records.

Agencies typically process requests in the order of receipt. The time it takes to respond to a request will vary depending on the complexity of the request and the backlog of requests already pending at the agency. A simple request can be processed faster by the agency than one that is complex. Simple requests are typically more targeted and seek fewer pages of records. Complex requests typically seek a high volume of material or require additional steps to process such as the need to search for records in multiple locations. The agency’s FOIA Requester Service Center is available to assist you with any question about the status of your request and any steps you can take to receive a quicker response.

Under certain conditions you may be entitled to have your request processed on an expedited basis. There are two specific situations where a request will be expedited, which means that it is handled as soon as practicable. These two situations apply to every agency. First, a request will be expedited if the lack of expedited treatment could reasonably be expected to pose a threat to someone's life or physical safety. Second, if there is an urgency to inform the public about an actual or alleged Federal Government activity, if made by a person who is primarily engaged in disseminating information, his or her request will be expedited. Agencies can also allow expedited processing for additional reasons. The websites for each agency will provide more information on any additional standards for seeking expedited processing.

Generally, when requesting information about another person you will receive greater access by submitting authorization from that individual permitting the disclosure of the records to you, or by submitting proof that the individual is deceased. If you request records relating to another person, and disclosure of the records could invade that person's privacy, they ordinarily will not be disclosed to you.

Not all records are required to be released under the FOIA. Congress established nine exemptions from disclosure for certain categories of information to protect against certain harms, such as an invasion of personal privacy, or harm to law enforcement investigations. The FOIA authorizes agencies to withhold information when they reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of these nine exemptions. The nine exemptions are described below.

  • Exemption 1: Information that is classified to protect national security.
  • Exemption 2: Information related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.
  • Exemption 3: Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
  • Exemption 4: Trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is confidential or privileged.
  • Exemption 5: Privileged communications within or between agencies, including those protected by the:
    1. Deliberative Process Privilege (provided the records were created less than 25 years before the date on which they were requested)
    2. Attorney-Work Product Privilege
    3. Attorney-Client Privilege
  • Exemption 6: Information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual's personal privacy.
  • Exemption 7: Information compiled for law enforcement purposes that:
    1. Could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings
    2. Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication
    3. Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy
    4. Could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source
    5. Would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions
    6. Could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual
  • Exemption 8: Information that concerns the supervision of financial institutions.
  • Exemption 9: Geological information on wells.

The FOIA Direct website is available 24/7/365, and you’re welcome to browse it or file a request anytime. Our support staff is also accessible by e-mail and willing to help out with everything from technical issues to answering your FOIA questions. We try to respond to most emails within two business days but are often much quicker.

Every record that is made or received by a government entity or employee is presumed to be a public record unless a specific statutory exemption permits or requires it to be withheld in whole or in part. A list of exemptions may be found at Chapter 4, Section 7(26) of the Massachusetts General Laws. For more information, follow this link: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/pre/preinformation.htm

A public records request is a request to either inspect, copy or both, public records. There is no requirement that the request be made in person or in writing, or be in any particular form. The person making the request is not required to identify himself/herself, or to provide information about the reason for the request or how the records will be used. The request must be clear enough to enable the Town/City to conduct a meaningful search. The Town/City may ask questions about the request in order to respond to the request fully and in a timely manner. The State acknowledges that access to information is a fundamental and necessary right of every citizen.

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