Recent changes in the US Freedom of Information Act

News | Rule of Law, Human Rights and Freedom of Media | Publications | Article 23 June 2016

Author: Irakli Lekishvili


The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law that sets standards for the disclosure of documents and information protected by public institutions. The Act defines the notion of public information and regulates exemptions of information disclosure (9 exemptions in total). It was adopted on July 4, 1966, on the US Independence Day. The act has been amended several times, but the most important of them can be considered changes adopted in March of this year.

The signature of the President is required for the implementation of the bill. According to the White House spokesperson, the president will sign the bill in the near future.

Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act

The idea of the bill is jointly passed by the Republican and Democratic parties, which led to the unconditional acceptance of it by the Senate. According to leading Senate supporters, the Freedom of Information Act is one of the most important laws adopted by the government and as a result of its amendments people will have more opportunities to manage their control on public institutions and make them more accountable to the general public.

It should be noted that there was a similar bill passed by both parties in 2014, but the implementation of the bill failed due to severe criticism by the Department of Justice.

After implementation of the bill, several important amendments will be included in the acts:

● Establish the “presumption of openness” of information protected by the public institutions, unless the institution reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption or if disclosure is prohibited by law.

● According to the bill, FOIA ombudsman of the Office of Government Information Services will be directly liable for report to Congress and president. Ombudsman will also have a right to provide legislative initiatives without approval from other executive branch institutions.

● Central online platform for request of public information will be created by the government.

● Institutions will be required to publish information that has or might become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records or if the information has been requested three or more times.

● After the limit to a period of 25 years, public institutions will be obliged to disclose information about inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums, agreements or letters.

● Public institution will be prohibited from assessing search or duplication fees when the institution fails to meet the notice requirements and time limits set by existing law, unless a request is considered more than 5,000 pages.

● Institutions will be required to notify requestors of the right to seek legal assistance from the FOIA Public ombudsman for the responding agency and the right of a requestor to seek dispute resolution services.


Amendments Rejected by Legislators


The initial version of the amendments adopted by the House of Representatives had higher disclosure standards; however, it did not get enough support from legislators. The main provisions of the House bill provided that:

● “Presumption of openness” would also apply on attorney-client privilege and attorney work product privileges if 25-years limit expired.

● Name, phone number, and email address of public servants who can provide information on the status of each request received by the institution would be publicly known. Furthermore, institution would be obliged to clarify the identification of any employee who would be responsible for the denial or partial denial to release information.

● A public institution would be obliged to provide the personal data of public servants related to their exercising of public authority, except personal contact and financial data.

● A public institution would be obliged to assess litigation costs in case of FOIA lawsuits.

● In any case of violation of FOIA laws or regulations, public institutions would be required to report to the affiliated institution inspector general. Furthermore, employees who would intentionally violate a FOIA law or regulation would be subject to suspension.


Overall, amendments passed by Congress significantly improve access to public information, strengthen the obligations of public authorities and simplify the process of requesting information. The initial version of the Bill provided higher standards on access to information, but it did not receive enough support in Congress. However, critics believe that the adopted amendments provide an opportunity to prepare for future proposal of changes, which will make public institutions more transparent.




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