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Journalism

This guide is a reference tool for students in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

What is FOIA?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions. A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. Before sending a request to a federal agency, you should determine which agency is likely to have the records you are seeking. Each agency’s website will contain information about the type of records that agency maintains.

More information on where to make a FOIA request

Tools for filing a FOIA request

Gray shelving unit with brown file/storage boxes.

FOIA Machine

A project to automate and streamline FOIA requests funded by a successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign and the Center for Investigative Reporting. This tool contains the contact information for FOIA-able federal, state, and city agencies, and will help you draft the letter, waive any related fees, and send your request. Create an account for free. 

Searching FOIA archives

Sometimes the public records you need may have been successfully FOIA'd by another journalist. If they have, and that journalist has posted them in a FOIA repository, that can save you a lot of time! These repositories of successful FOIA'd documents are a great place to search before making your request. 

Records Retention Schedules and FOIA/FOIL

A "records retention schedule" is the key to identifying FOIAable or FOILable documents within an agency. If you know the name of the record or document that you are looking for the chances of your FOIA request succeeding are far higher. To find a record retention schedule, run a Google search for the terms "records retention schedule" and the name of the organization:

"records retention schedule" "new york state department of corrections"

Below are some particularly useful records retention schedules for NYU Journalism students.

State and local Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests

While FOIA covers access to federal government agency records, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) guarantees access to state and local government records. All fifty states also have freedom of information laws that govern access to these documents, though the provisions of the state laws vary considerably. 

In New York state, FOIL guarantees access to a whole host of government agencies. Below are quick links to some commonly requested New York agencies: 

The Law that Governs FOIA in the United States

  1. ‚ÄčFoia.gov -- Official site for all FOIA info disclosed by the federal government, including statistics on requests received and filled. Find out how and where to submit your own requests to specific agencies under the "Learn" tab
  2. Public Law 110-175 — an amendment (2007) to the FOIA. The text can be found on the Justice department's site
  3. FOIL (Freedom of Information Law, New York) Text of the law, via the New York State Committee on Open Government