‘Kicking and screaming’: 50 years of FOIA

Photo by Kate Ter Haar, via Flickr

The Freedom of Information Act turns 50 on July 4. This is cause for celebration—and not just because President Obama signed a significant FOIA reform bill to mark the occasion (and atone in some small way for his abysmal FOIA record).

No, we should pause for FOIA’s birthday because every FOIA requester, whether they realize it or not, takes part part in a monumental, multi-decade experiment to see what happens when the most powerful nation in the world says, in essence, “We’re here, and legally obligated, to answer your questions.”

Since the law’s passage in 1966, FOIA requests have covered everything from nuclear tests in Alaska to vice-president Spiro Agnew’s resignation, from the last moments of the space shuttle Challenger to the attacks on September 11, from Amtrak cafeteria-car complaints to John Lennon’s FBI file. One New York Times op-ed from 1975 (published by the director of Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law) notes, “the Federal Government is the largest single creator and collector of information in the world,” and that FOIA “declares that all government documents, with certain specific exceptions, must be made available to the public.” The idea behind the law, if not its everyday application, remains awe-inspiring.

Indeed, every FOIA request tells a story, and when you line up some of the law’s most notable moments, an important narrative emerges about what this tool means for journalists—and all US citizens. So, in honor of FOIA’s semicentennial, that’s exactly what we produced: an unredacted timeline of FOIA history, including links to groundbreaking FOIA-enabled journalism and a trove of resources for anyone interested in FOIA.

 

 

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Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration under the FOIA, with help from the Rhode Island ACLU and two pro-bono attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell. Follow him on Twitter: @phileil.