Alabama Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): Explanations, Exemptions, and Uses
The Freedom of Information Act, originally signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966, is a federal law that is intended to allow the citizens of the United States of America to access full or partial pieces of information or documents that are controlled by the United States Government. As this is a federal law, this law also applies to all 50 state governments at all levels.
The records themselves that are allowed to be accessed are quite broad in nature. As each level of the government, both state and federal, are legally mandated to keep careful and accurate records of their proceedings, most aspects of Alabama state and local governments are reviewable by any citizen, provided that they follow the correct path to acquire this information.
These documents include, as quoted from the language of the law, “All written, typed or printed, papers, letters, documents and maps made or received in pursuance of law by the public officers of the state, counties, municipalities, and other subdivisions of government.” (41-13-1 )
Due to concerns that certain pieces of governmental information should be kept secret for reasons, among others, of national defense, there are nine exemptions listed in FOIA that are not accessible to citizens. In other words, while citizens can request items of information from the exemptions list, governmental agencies are under no obligation to provide them.
The original exemptions are:
- Items of information which have been determined to be secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy, as dictated by Executive order.
- Items that are exclusively related to the internal personnel policy rules and practices of an agency.
- Items of information which are expressly outlined by statute.
- Items of information which are considered to be trade secrets, as well well as financial information that can only be delivered by a privileged person.
- Inter-agency or intra-agency communications that would not be available by law to any party other than an agency that is in litigation with the agency in question.
- Any pieces of information which could be considered a breach of personal privacy, such as personnel and medical files.
- Items of information which are compiled for law enforcement purposes, but generally this includes only pieces of information that would interfere with a trial. These items include: (A) information which would interfere with enforcement proceedings, (B) information which could reasonably be expected to interfere with a person’s right to a fair trial, (C) information which could be considered a breach of personal privacy, (D) information which could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source, including State, local, or foreign agencies/authorities/institutions, (E) information which discloses the methods by which enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such information could be reasonably used to circumvent enforcement of the law, or (F) any information that could reasonably be expected to threaten the safety or life of any individual.
- Any information which is contained in or directly relates to the examination, operating, or condition reports that involve agencies responsible for regulating and supervising financial institutions.
- Any information of a geographical and geophysical nature, which includes maps, of wells.
Alabama itself has put forth two specific further exemptions to FOIA. These are:
- Library circulations records.
- Records that have been expressly labeled as confidential by statute.
Generally speaking, FOIA requests are intended to provide information regarding the proceedings of legislative bodies, the results of those proceedings, and how state agencies interact with private agencies and other groups. FOIA requests are generally not for getting information about individuals, although the pay levels, official interactions, and voting records of public officials is usually permitted.
Filing a FOIA request in Alabama
In order to file a FOIA request in Alabama, you must first determine exactly the type of records that you wish to obtain. Note that FOIA requests are not for answering questions you may have about an agency, and FOIA does not require any agency to create entirely new records on behalf of a FOIA request – they must only provide pre-existing records. Individuals must generally also provide an explanation of why the release of this information would be in the public interest, and the information must also not provide an economic advantage to the individual requesting the information.
Unfortunately, there is no single institution that handles all FOIA requests in the state of Alabama. Due to this, FOIA requests must be sent directly to the agency in possession of the information that you wish to acquire. When drafting your FOIA request, ensure that FOIA Request is written prominently on the envelope. This will ensure that your request is forwarded to the desk that handles FOIA requests promptly. While it is not necessary to hire a lawyer for this process, one can make the process more smooth and likely to be met with success.
Specifically, you should include the exact information that you want to receive records of (such as all EPA visits to a particular power plant over a specific duration of time), what you plan to do with these records, and why you believe that these records will be of public benefit.