It’s All About Public Accountability and the People’s Right to Know
While the provisions of the laws vary from state to state, all 50 states guarantee members of the public access to documents and other public records from state and local government bodies.
New York State’s open-record law is called – FOIL – the Freedom of Information Law and it pertains to the right of New York residents to have access to the records produced by its many government agencies.
In NYC, the following agencies are most frequently tapped with requests for records:
- NYC Department of Corrections
- Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
- Department of Housing Preservation and Development
- NY Police Department
- NYC Department of City Planning
- NYC Department of Education
- NYC Department of Environmental Protection
- NYC Economic Development Corporation
- NYC Housing Authority
- NYC Office of the Comptroller
In New York State, the following agencies are popular ports of call:
- NY State Department of Corrections
- NY State Department of Education
- NY State Department of Health
- NY State Police
Each of the agencies listed above provide online FOIL request forms.
Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) affords the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Save for protections from public disclosure by nine exemptions and by three special law enforcement record exclusions, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA; agencies are also required to post online certain categories of FOIA, including frequently requested records.
Note: FOIA does not apply to the judicial branch and federal courts, the legislative branch and congress, or state governments and courts. You must make your records requests from these entities directly.
Know Before You Go – Tools for filing FOIL and FOIA Requests
For a first-time requester of FOIL or FOIA records, the very thought of maneuvering one’s way through state and government agencies is daunting at best.
- I want some information about terrorism arrests in the U.S. since 2015 but I’m not sure what to ask for.
- Which agency has the documents/records I’m looking for?
- How do I file my request?
The New York State Committee on Open Government is the public’s advocate in matters concerning the implementation of New York’s FOIL and New Yorkers’ right to access records. Within the purview of the committee, is the obligation to provide advice, training and educational programs to members of the public and the news media. In addition to providing an informative and practical FAQ, this page also provides sample letters for filing FOIL requests and, in the event of a denial, sample letters for appeal.
When you’re not sure what you’re asking for is a public document, you can lend credibility to your FOIL request by taking advantage of the committee’s website posts of Advisory Opinions and decisions related to past FOIL requests; search them by topic to see if there’s one that fits your research needs. Staff also gives advice via telephone and email.
The not-for-profit site MuckRock provides tools that help you file, track, and share public records requests – state, federal and municipal.
Muckrock helps by maintaining FOIA lists and FOIL lists of previously filed FOIA and FOIL requests. Use these lists to help to identify what records are maintained by an agency and what the record you are looking for is called by that agency, so that your request can be more specific, thereby increasing the chances that it will be fulfilled.
FOIA.gov is the official website for all information on the FOIA.
Before making a FOIA request, search the agencies’ websites to see if the record(s) you seek have already been published and are publicly available online.
This link to FOIA Contacts is your gateway to all federal agencies and the subsidiary offices that fall within their purview. Contact information includes name, address (including email) and telephone number of the FOIA Officer; also included is an online FOIA request form, the name and telephone contact of the FOIA Public Liaison and much more useful information.
When submitting FOIA requests, please be sure to follow the instructions of the agency to which you are making the request; remember, each agency provides details as to how to make a FOIA request, and most requests are now submitted in electronic form
FOIA Mapper is a great way to find out what FOIA requests others are making.
If you know which agency you wish to search, select the Browse by Agency link and go sleuthing; if you’re less certain, then a search of the Agency Record Systems or FOIA Logs will show how the information is stored and which agency maintains it (This example Border Apprehensions) will shed even more light on the utility of a record systems search; and a search of the FOIA Logs will show who filed the request, provide a description of the information being requested and the will show the date the request was received and will often give a status update – granted, denied, delayed… The log will identify the requester by name/organization; that alone is useful, as it can tip you off to a newsworthy inquiry being made by a major news organization. Check out Buzzfeed’s or your favorite news organization’s recent requests, e.g.
Here is a sample FOIA log
NOTE: FOIA Mapper does not have logs for all agencies, but if they have a log, it will appear in your Browse by Government Agency search
http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org/ Sunshine Week 2017, an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. Excellent resource
http://www.citizen.org/documents/FOIABrochureWEB.pdf Courtesy of Public Citizen, this guide provides a general description of the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and specific guidelines on how to use it effectively.
Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) provides assistance to all persons/organizations making FOIA requests. Like the NYC Committee on Open Government, OGIS is the mediator of FOIA disputes; members help to identify policies and procedures for improving FOIA compliance. Take full advantage of the Additional FOIA Resources page. And if your request is in dispute, check out the page on Requesting OGIS Assistance.
Recent FOIA news stories
Washington Post FOIA to the Parks Service. Also falling into the category of “I can’t believe that required a FOIA request.”
According to a FOIA obtained by Queens Neighborhoods United, a community organization based in Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens, more than 1,100 immigrants were arrested in just Queens and Nassau counties between September 1st, 2015 and April 12th, 2016, before President Trump substantially lowered the bar for what constitutes a priority for immigration enforcement.
Many of these arrests, according to interviews with immigration defense lawyers, stem from low-level violations or a situation where ICE was alerted to an immigrant’s location based on a low-level arrest, and then arrested the individual based on a much, much older conviction.