by Joseph Lichterman
In the 2015 fiscal year, the U.S. federal government processed 769,903 Freedom of Information requests. The government fully fulfilled only 22.6 percent of those requests; 44.9 percent of federal FOIA requests were either partially or fully denied. Even though the government denied at least part of more than 345,000 requests, it only received 14,639 administrative appeals.
In an attempt to make the FOIA appeals process easier and help reporters and others understand how and why their requests are being denied, MuckRock is on Thursday launching a project to catalog and explain the exceptions both the federal and state governments are using to deny requests.
MuckRock is a nonprofit site that helps its users file FOIA requests, and cofounder Michael Morisy said that the site is planning to create a “Google for FOIA rejections” which will help users understand why their requests were denied and learn what they can do to appeal the case.
“FOIA requests are intimidating to start with, and the appeals process is much more so,” Morisy said. “A lot of people see that initial reaction and think: ‘If I can’t afford a lawyer, then there’s nothing I can do.’ That’s not true. One of the things that MuckRock focused really on from the beginning was to de-intimidate requests and make requesting more approachable. We want to do the same thing with the appeals process.”
There are nine exemptions to federal FOIA law that enable the government to deny requests. Each state also has its own freedom of information laws with their own various exemptions.
When a user files a request through MuckRock that gets rejected, the site will provide context on the rejection, explaining how the exemptions should be properly applied, how other users overcame similar rejections, and sample letters to submit for appeal. It’ll also highlight data on how often each exception is used and how often they’re successfully appealed.
“At the federal level, there’s a lot of discussion and pushback against rejections, and we now finally have some federal FOIA reform. But at the state and local level, what we’ve seen is that more exemptions have creeped in, more redactions have creeped in, worse compliance has occurred, and advocates in those states feel like they don’t have the resources to push back,” Morisy said. [READ MORE]