Sunshine Week is an annual initiative in the second week of March, promoting open, transparent government and celebrating our right to government information in the United States. Launched in 2005 by the News Leaders Association, Sunshine Week overlaps with Freedom of Information Day which is recognized on James Madison’s birthday of March 16th. The fourth US President and “Father of the US Constitution,” Madison is also widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers on public information’s role in a healthy democracy.
A strong proponent of open government and informed citizenry, Madison once wrote “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” It’s only fitting that his birthday is commemorated by one of the most important laws enabling government transparency and accountability–the Freedom of Information Act, more commonly referred to as FOIA.
Passed in 1966, this federal law gives us the right to access information from the government. Information including documents, reports, budgets, emails, text messages, meeting minutes, court records, policies, manuals, contracts, and much more. FOIA requires that federal agencies disclose this requested information unless it falls under certain exemptions, such as national security or personal privacy. Though the Freedom of Information Act applies to federal agencies, open records rights do also extend to state and local governments, via individual state laws that are built upon the foundation of FOIA.
FOIA is not just for requesting records, its very existence influences government agencies at all levels to proactively make many records publicly available by default. (This means you don’t always have to make FOIA requests for what you seek! You can always check if the government agency has it online already.) FOIA is also not just for journalists and lawyers and the like. The way the government conducts itself is everyone’s business, so FOIA is also a powerful tool for everyday peoples. Since humanists value critical thinking, scientific reason, and evidence-based decision-making, we certainly have a vested interest in the access to knowledge, both philosophically and politically.
As disinformation runs rampant in online media, the access to truth is more important than ever. With contemporary concerns like the climate crisis and the continuing rise of Christian Nationalism that threatens reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and our public schools, there are plenty of ongoing situations where humanists can step up to the challenge of exercising our right to government transparency and accountability.
So, where to start dipping one’s toes into FOIA? For the unfamiliar, and even the semi-familiar, getting started can be overwhelming due to the vast and varied resources available. From in-depth guides to templates, generators, and databases, the options for exploring the FOIA process are numerous.
Perhaps the best place to start is with inspiration from real-life examples. Browsing tangible reference points to help contextualize the utility of FOIA and the processes and resources involved, you can then connect the dots between real life concerns and say, your local school board, state election commission, or even the FBI.
Enter MuckRock’s requests repository. This online platform is excellent for making requests easy, but it also has a free database to search FOIA/records requests from other users. For example, here are their results for all requests with the keywords “book ban” or “mask mandate” or “Scientology.” Or narrow down with other filters, such as all requests under the jurisdiction of Shelby County, Tennessee, all rejected requests sent to the CIA, or all California requests currently in litigation.
Specific examples of MuckRock FOI requests possibly of interest to humanists:
- Religious event permits from the New York City Mayor’s office
- Social media profile/moderation/visibility settings for the Fort Worth Police Department
- Communications about anti-satanic public school dress code in Hays, Kansas
- Abortion medication seized by the USPS
- Facial recognition software and marketing at the Pennsylvania Justice Network.
- International Religious Freedom Training Videos from the Department of Justice
Once inspired by the possibilities of FOIA, it’s easier to parse through FOIA guides to brush up on the various rules, processes, jurisdictions, and other criteria required to act upon your own requests. There are a range of resources to move forward from here:
There are also how-to guides from Public Citizen, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Center for Constitutional Rights’ FOIA Basics for Activists. The latter has a whole separate website resource with extensive information about use cases specifically for activism.
For guides to non-federal agencies, the National Freedom of Information Coalition is a great starting point for state level FOI. They have simple guides to FOI laws in each state, state FOI resources, and even sample FOI request letters for each state. For more in-depth state law examination, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a great Open Government Guide with thorough standardized outlines for each state prepared by volunteer attorneys. MuckRock’s also has location-specific resources that break down information about states and jurisdiction lists with useful request statistics, agency information, and response rates.
Sunshine Week is one week a year, but let’s exercise our freedom of information year round and keep government accountable.