Federal FOIA Appeals Guide

Every journalist who requests records from the federal government through the Freedom of Information Act should be familiar with its administrative appeals process. Unfortunately, for various reasons, federal agencies at times fail to adhere to FOIA’s disclosure requirements. When this occurs, journalists are not without recourse. They can appeal adverse decisions to higher authorities within an agency and often must in order to enforce their rights.   

The Federal Freedom of Information Act Appeals Guide is intended to help journalists successfully draft appeal letters to federal administrative agencies when they receive an unfavorable decision related to a federal FOIA request. This guide builds off and supplements our Federal Open Government Guide. Among other things, the Federal Open Government Guide provides information detailing citizens’ rights under federal FOIA, how to file a FOIA request and presents a condensed discussion about FOIA exemptions and appeal options.

In contrast, this guide is intended to provide journalists with a fairly in-depth understanding of the large body of law that has developed related to the federal FOIA (primarily through federal judicial decisions that have interpreted the FOIA) while at the same time remaining accessible to the non-lawyer. It is designed so journalists can engage in effective self-help at the administrative appeals stage, crafting informed appeal letters when they feel they are being unlawfully denied access to records or are being denied procedural rights to, for example, fee waivers or expedited processing.

Please remember that every situation is unique and that this guide is not intended nor should it be construed as giving specific legal advice to you. Rather, it provides a discussion of the law in general terms to better educate journalists on how federal FOIA law has been interpreted and operates. Also, it is not intended to be a guide on how to file a FOIA lawsuit as that is a distinct process from filing an administrative appeal with an agency. If you have specific legal questions about your situation or are considering filing a lawsuit, you should contact your media company’s lawyer or call the Reporters Committee at (703) 807-2100.

© 2012 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press