The Activists’ Web: FOIA

By Ryan Pintado-Vertner Dec 15, 2001

FOIA, the Best Maybe in America

When I was a little kid, I told my parents to vote for Ronald Reagan. I don’t think they took my Sesame Street advice, but the Reagan Era happened anyway. Thanks to Alzheimer’s, Reagan himself has forgotten everything he did to us. But his presidential papers, 68,000 documents held in a California library, have a much better memory. One day maybe you can access them.


Welcome to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), one of the most important maybes in America. First passed in 1966, this powerful federal law, which has been replicated in every state, grants public access to an enormous number of government documents–maybe.

Welfare rights activists from the Fifth Avenue Committee in New York learned this firsthand when they filed a freedom of information request with city officials, looking for information about a welfare-to-work training program that many welfare recipients considered inadequate. In the past, FOIA has been used to obtain files that documented the FBI’s secret program to undermine, imprison, and kill radical dissidents such as members of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush has kept the 68,000 Reagan papers secret, despite a Watergate-inspired law mandating their release.

And so rather than opening doors that were once welded shut, FOIA is often more like a padlock that can be opened–but you don’t have the key. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press ( is the best locksmith on the Internet.

This website has a comprehensive set of guides to what is covered by FOIA, what is not, and what should be. Not simply rhetorical, the guides are also tactical, designed for journalists and media lawyers.

Its web-based, fill-in-the-blank FOIA request letter is the bomb ( Type in your specific information, and it spits back a letter with all the necessary legalese, plus the address of the appropriate federal agency.

If you need more help, call the 24-hour RCFP hotline for support on state or federal information access (1-800-336-4243). I called the number, and found a knowledgeable person ready to help.

Finally, the site has a state-by-state guide to open meetings and open records laws called "Tapping Officials’ Secrets" ( Other sites with state-specific information include: Society of Professional Journalists ( and Bahr & Stotter Law Offices, a media law firm (

But hands down, I found to be the best FOIA locksmith on the Net, and Reagan would be thoroughly pissed.

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