Over and over again, I hear journalists complain about being rejected by government agencies when making Freedom of Information Act requests and how difficult it is to successfully file an appeal. So I’ve decided to consult with an expert.
Meet Michael Morisy, co-founder of the MuckRock, a collaborative news site that works with its users in filing Freedom of Information Requests and reports on the results. Since it was founded in 2010, MuckRock has filed almost 12,000 FOIA requests and published over 430,000 pages of government documents.
Here’s his advice:
What avenues can journalists take when their federal Freedom of Information Act request is rejected?
“It’s very easy to get discouraged because usually with FOIA requests you have waited months and months and then you get rejection and it’s pretty intimidating. I would encourage veteran FOIA requesters to appeal every single response they get back. Even if they get some documents, a lot of times people are pretty successful in appealing and saying I don’t think this is everything, keep looking.
I really encourage everybody to take advantage of the various appeal opportunities because you don’t need a lawyer, it’s not a deep understanding of sort-of legal procedure, you just need to send a letter and say ‘I appeal.’ That is a very accessible avenue for everybody. But it really depends on the type of rejection you see and what you are going after.”
What resources can journalists use to help them craft an appeal?
“At MuckRock, we have a bunch of appeals that people can browse through. We also have a question and answer section where if you have a specific rejection, it’s a free resource where everyone can talk. We also have a couple hundred FOIA experts who come in and provide question and answer responses. The RCFP (Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press) has a number of really good response guides and appeal templates.”
How often do appeals work?
“It varies a lot, but we’ve seen about 30 to 40 percent of the time an appeal is at least partially successful. It does add time to the process, but usually an agency can’t say we are going to give you nothing. This is where I think the appeals process is very useful because it tells the agency I’m serious about the request and you need to actually process it. Agencies love to say, ‘well this exemption applies so we are not going to give you the documents you want.’ But rarely does the exemption apply to everything and so by appealing, you can sort of go back to the agency and say, no. Even if parts of what I requested are exempt, not everything is exempt. So please release “separable” information. [Separable] is kind of the keywords I think has been helpful for people.
The first thing you should do is read the rejection letter because that almost always has where you need to send an appeal. Usually where you send the appeal is different than where you sent the original request.”
If you have a piece of advise for someone who may be getting discouraged during the appeal process, what would you tell them?
“I would tell people this is not a personal process. Maybe 90 percent of the time, the people receiving and processing these requests don’t really care about the outcome. They are just trying to do their job and so being kind, professional, but assertive is really important. This particularly applies for the appeal. So take and closely read why the request was rejected in the first place. Was it too vague? You can say, okay I only want documents between this date and this date. Or maybe, I only want emails from this person in March rather than a very broad request.
That is a problem, where many requests are just too broad. So on your appeal, you can kind of narrow your request and try and negotiate with the agency to try and figure out what you are looking for.”