Happy Freedom of Information Day from SLL!
March 16, 2021
Today, March 16th, is Freedom of Information Day! Do you know how to make a public records request? Read on for more information on Texas and federal laws that help protect the public's access to government information.
Freedom of Information Day
Freedom of Information (FOI) Day is a part of Sunshine Week, an initiative created in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) to help advocate for stronger open government laws. Freedom of Information Day occurs on or around March 16th of each year and was intended to honor President James Madison's birthday. The initial author of the Bill of Rights, President Madison is largely considered an early and ardent supporter of open government.
What is a Public Records Request?
A public records request is a formal written request for an existing government record from the federal, state, or local government body that maintains the records. These requests are often referred to as public records requests, open records requests, freedom of information requests, etc. depending on the context and laws that the request falls under. Typically any person can make these types of requests, and an agency is required to provide a response to the request.
One thing to keep in mind is that you can only ask for access to information that already exists, so you can't use a public records request to ask an agency to create new records for you or answer questions. Another thing to keep in mind is that some records may not be subject to these types of requests in efforts to maintain privacy, security, privileged communication, and other concerns. Agencies often post procedures for requesting access to their records under a public information request on their website (for example, see the SLL's own open records policy!), so it's a good idea to look at the agency's website when considering a public info request.
Requesting Federal Information: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
If you're curious about requesting access to federal information, you should start by reviewing the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA, as it's commonly referred to). The Freedom of Information Act is a federal law in place since 1967 that protects the rights of the public to request access to records from the federal government. FOIA is found in Title 5, Section 522 of the U.S. Code and requires federal government bodies to make any information requested under FOIA public upon request with certain exceptions. FOIA also requires the federal government to make specific types of the requested information available to the public online, especially commonly requested information.
The federal government has an entire site dedicated to FOIA requests that can help you understand the process. Use this site to learn how to make a request under FOIA, find answers to frequently asked questions about FOIA, and create your request online. Looking for old FOIA reports? Check out the National Archive's website to find an archive of past reports available online from 1996 onward.
Requesting Texas Information: The Public Information Act (PIA)
Requests for information or records from a government body in Texas fall under the Public Information Act (PIA) found in Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code. The Texas Attorney General's page on open records requests has a lot of helpful information, tips, and a number for their Open Government hotline, so be sure to check them out!
You can also find a ton of incredibly detailed information on PIA requests in the Texas AG's Public Information Handbook [PDF]. If you're looking for past Open Records reports, you can also find these on the Attorney General's site along with information for government agencies on how to best fulfill these requests.
Still have questions? Let us know via e-mail, voicemail, or chat, and have a happy Freedom of Information Day!