Filing Your First FOIA

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OK, so you’ve been reading about FOIA for some time; you’ve lurked on social media and read some articles on MuckRock; you’ve shed your crippling anxiety over losing your FOIA virginity; and you might know what it is you’d like to request. Maybe you’ve even hired me to file one for you and, feeling so incredibly enlightened from what you learned, are feeling up for giving it a try solo.

Excellent!

If you don’t have anything in particular in mind for your first request, check out MuckRock’s recently completed requests to get those juices flowing.

You can also think of something that occurred in your local community — no matter how mundane — which may have created some kind of public record, such as a police report, a contract, an invoice, etc.

FOIA doesn’t have to be super serious all the time either. In fact, FOIA is often quite the robust source of comedy; just read pretty much any article written by MuckRock Executive Editor JPat Brown.

You are officially ready to file your first FOIA!

So how are you going to submit it? Well, you could mail it or send a fax, but it’s 2018 and I’m not sure those things even exist anymore. You can always submit requests through email or, if the agency has one, an online portal.

I’d recommend that you head on over to MuckRock (are you seeing a pattern here?). MuckRock is a fantastic site that makes filing FOIA requests ridiculously easy. Just purchase a few requests for a reasonable price, click “file a request,” literally type what you want, pick the agency, and click a button. Their system customizes the request language based on the location of the agency you are filing your request with. All you have to do is write a sentence or two describing (in detail!) what it is you want; they take care of the rest. They even have automatic reminder emails sent out every couple weeks or so to gently remind an agency that you haven’t forgotten about your request (even if you actually have).

They also have a database of thousands of agencies, so that you don’t have to track down the contact information yourself. MuckRock also features an extremely helpful community and staff that will answer whatever questions arise.

But maybe you’re feeling frugal and don’t want to spend money. That’s fine — it is the Freedom of Information Act, after all.

I recommend you track down an email address for the agency you are going to file with. Usually that’s pretty easy to track down on their website, but sometimes the only email address you can find is an “info@randomagency.gov.” That’s fine too — they’ll forward the request to the appropriate person. Copy and paste the email address in the “To” field of your compose email window.

Now I suggest you go to MuckRock and find a request someone else has filed within the same state or jurisdiction of the agency you’re submitting your request to. Copy and paste the original request in its entirety into the body of the email. Now remove part where the other person specified their request, and instead type what records you are seeking. Be sure to follow my advice about being polite, specific, and effective.

Put as the subject the words “Public records request” or “FOIA request” or similar, followed by a not-too-lengthy description of your request. For example, “FOIA request: police reports for 1400 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC.” This way, you’ll be able to better keep track of which request is which by just looking at the subject fields rather than opening each email individually. This is especially useful if you plan on filing a lot of requests and want to stay organized.

Now hit send. You’ve done it! You should expect to receive a confirmation email from the agency to let you know that they’ve received your request and are working on it. If you don’t receive it after a week or so, send them a follow-up email asking them to confirm receipt.

Then you can bask in the glory that you’re basically a muckraker now.

Happy filing!

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