So you want to file a FOIA?

If you are looking to get access to administration memo, minutes, and budget information, and asking nicely isn’t working, you can file a claim with the University’s Freedom of Information Office. These claims are known colloquially in the journalism business as a FOIA (short for Freedom of Information Act), pronounced “Foy-ya”, and can be filed by anybody – not just journalists. Most state and the federal government have adopted “sunshine laws” which make most records publicly available – these have in general been considered a positive step towards increasing the transparency and responsiveness of government A FOIA request is considered a legal process to be used as a last resort, and you should be warned that the administration is adept at chilling requests. Among the more interesting things you can get: DPS reports are public, you can ask for reports that mention specific people, or reports about specific incidents on campus, also student organization account records from SOAS are public. In addition, most e-mails and minutes regarding University business are public, IF you know what you’re asking for. Here’s a quick guide I prepared:

1) The University considers FOIA a means for people to obtain information after other attempts have failed, so before you resort to FOIA, they like you to ask for the information, and if they refuse, then you can do a FOIA. Tell them you intend to file a FOIA if they don’t hand over the info and see what they say.

2) FOIA requests are accepted in written form or via e-mail, and they require some information – your name, address, etc. Here’s the website of the University office that handles these requests. Their office is on the 6th floor of the Fleming building.

3) Technically, a FOIA is a request for a DOCUMENT. (Remember: emails are documents, although most admins delete them, but you can ask for emails sent to a specific user group, for example) You should be asking for a document you know exists – (memos, minutes, reports) or you suspect may exist. The more specific, the better. (As an example, for budget cuts, I am sure the Chief Financial Officer had meetings about cuts with Vice President for Student Affairs Royster, so maybe asking for those would be a good start.)

4) Exceptions. In general, anything with student’s records, names, or other personal info they can either censor or legally refuse. Other than that, the restrictions are fairly narrowly defined: security procedures, medical records and the like.

5) Charges. For small requests, the University will give you the documents for free. For requests that will take a lot of time to find and/or compile (censor out student names, for example) they can charge you per page and also per hour of labor involved. This can get pricey, so that’s why specificity is important.

6) The head FOIA officer is named Lewis Morrissey. He is a former journalist who I have met at a couple occasions, and is fairly cooperative.

7) By law, the University has to respond in like 7 days, but they almost always use a loophole that gives them an extension for 10 days to fill the request. If they need money they can demand a deposit or cheque.

Author: Rob