Legislation Related to FOIA

There have been many different pieces of legislation related to FOIA. Highlights are listed here for your convenience:

Faster FOIA Bill of 2011

Although the US Senate passed the Faster FOIA bill in May 2011, it was necessary to reintroduce and reconsider the bill in August 2011 because the US House of Representatives stripped out the FOIA provisions in the original bill and used the amended bill as the means to pass the debt-ceiling legislation. Faster FOIA called for the establishment of a commission to: identify means to reduce delays in the processing of FOIA requests; determine why the government's use of FOIA exemptions increased during FY 2009; determine whether any disparities in the processing of responses to FOIA requestors have occurred based upon political considerations, ideological viewpoints, the identity of the requestors, affiliation with the media, or affiliation with advocacy groups; if disparities occurred, determine why they did; determine the extent to which political appointees have been involved in the FOIA process; and more. ARL joined in OpentheGovernment.org letters in support of Faster FOIA legislation. For more details, see the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

S. 3717 Closes FOIA Loophole

On October 5, 2010, President Obama signed S. 3717, legislation to strike the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemptions created for certain records provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the recently passed Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act). ARL, as a member of OpenTheGovernment.org, supported S. 3717 because the new FOIA exemptions, if interpreted broadly, could have restricted the public’s ability to access information relating to the SEC’s oversight activities. In a letter (PDF) to Senator Patrick Leahy (Chair, Senate Judiciary Committee), ARL and other members of OpenTheGovernment.org noted, “This bill [S. 3717] sends a clear message that public access is vital to accountability and that the existing FOIA exemptions can adequately protect confidential business information provided by newly regulated entities. In the aftermath of the recent financial crisis, the need for greater transparency in our financial system and in regulatory oversight is all too apparent.” For more details, see the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

Faster FOIA Act of 2010

On May 5, 2010, the US Senate passed the Faster FOIA Act, S. 3111, which would have resulted in recommendations on how to reduce delays in processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The legislation called for an advisory commission to examine agency practices, such as FOIA fees and backlogs. ARL joined OpenTheGovernment.org in a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) in support of Faster FOIA. For more information, see the bill’s record in the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

OPEN FOIA Act of 2009

Two vocal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) advocates, Senator Patrick Leahy (Chair, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and D-VT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), introduced the OPEN FOIA Act of 2009, S. 612. The legislation sought to reduce the amount of government secrecy by limiting the number of instances where government records may be exempted from disclosure. It is not unusual for new FOIA exemptions to be included in proposed legislation, and oftentimes these new exemptions are enacted into law without ample understanding of how they would place new restrictions on government disclosure. The bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary in March 2009. For more details, see the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National (OPEN) Government Act of 2007

On December 31, 2007, President George W. Bush signed the OPEN Government Act into law. The legislation updates selected sections of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Advocates for open government applauded the changes to FOIA, especially restoring meaningful deadlines for federal agencies to respond to FOIA requests, imposing consequences on federal agencies for missing FOIA's 20-day statutory deadline, clarifying that FOIA applies to government records held by outside private contractors, and building a system for the public to easily track FOIA requests. For more details, see the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

Faster FOIA Act of 2005

On March 17, 2005, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary unanimously voted to send the Faster FOIA Act, S. 589, to the full Senate without amendment. The bill would have established a 16-member panel to conduct a study to identify ways to reduce delays by federal agencies in the processing of FOIA requests. For more information, see the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act

On March 15, 2005, the Senate Committee on Judiciary's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security held a hearing on S. 394, also known as the OPEN Government Act.  The bill sought to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), thus improving government transparency and accountability.  Provisions in the bill addressed long-standing concerns about federal agency practice, the rights of those making FOIA requests, and oversight of agencies responding to FOIA requests.  For example, under S. 394, agencies would have been required to establish a tracking system for FOIA requests and required to respond to a request within 20 days. With regard to the rights of FOIA requesters, the legislation would have improved the ability of requesters to recover legal fees.  Finally, S. 394 called upon agencies to provide additional information on how they respond to FOIA requests. For more details, see the Library of Congress THOMAS database.

Restore FOIA Act of 2005

On March 15, 2005, Senators Levin (D-MI), Lieberman (D-CT), and Feingold (D-WI) joined Senator Leahy (D-VT) in introducing the Restoration of Freedom of Information Act of 2005 (S. 622). The legislation would have remedied concerns with provisions in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (HSA) relating to an exemption to FOIA for "critical infrastructure information." Provisions included in HSA grant a FOIA exemption to those private companies that provide the government with information regarding vulnerabilities in our nation's critical infrastructure (e.g., power plants, ports and more). The concern was that the FOIA exemption was so great that it effectively shielded information from the public. 

S. 622 was identical to a compromise proposed and supported in the last session of Congress. ARL joined in a statement of support for S 622 with close to 50 other public interest groups (PDF).

Freedom of Information Act Amendment, September 2004

The Senate approved a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2005 that adds a new exemption under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The amendment, titled, Section 1024, "Nondisclosure of Certain Products of Commercial Satellite Operations," would prohibit disclosure of any commercial satellite images, products and/or data that are collected by land remote sensing, which includes maps, reports and analysis. The far-reaching amendment would threaten significant amounts of unclassified data that journalists, public interest groups, researchers and the public use routinely.

On September 10, 2004, ARL and others submitted a letter to both houses (PDF) expressing their concerns with this amendment, including the lack of consultation with communities that will be affected by this amendment.

Congressional Research Accessibility Act of 2003

H.R. 3630 was introduced after the discontinuation of the "Index of Congressional Research Service Reports" in fall of 2003. The Congressional Research Accessibility Act would have required the Director of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to make available through a centralized electronic database, for purposes of access by the public through the websites maintained by Members and committees of the House of Representatives, the following information: (1) CRS issue briefs; (2) CRS reports that are available to Members of Congress through the CRS website; and (3) CRS authorization of appropriations products and appropriations products. Excludes any information that is either confidential or the product of an individual, office, or committee research request.

Homeland Security Procedure, August 2003

In August of 2003, ARL joined with 75 organizations representing journalists, scientists, librarians, environmental groups, privacy advocates, and others in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. The letter called on the Department of Homeland Security to "give the public an opportunity to comment on procedures that are being developed that may restrict the public dissemination of 'homeland security information,' including information that is 'sensitive but unclassified.'"

According to the letter, "the public's ability to remain informed of and participate in the decision-making of government is fundamental to the democratic process." The letter calls upon Secretary Ridge to clarify the definition of "Homeland Security Information." The new procedures could affect many people not suspected of illegal activities by prohibiting "public disclosure of information subject to agreements between the government and those receiving 'sensitive but unclassified' information."

Restoration of Freedom of Information Act of 2003

On June 23, 2003, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Restoration of Freedom of Information Act of 2003 (H.R. 2526) in the House of Representatives. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the companion bill in the Senate (S. 609) in March. The legislation would have addressed concerns with provisions in the Homeland Security Act (HSA) which would limit public access to important health and safety information. According to the bill's summary, the legislation would "prohibit a record pertaining to the vulnerability of and threats to critical infrastructure that is furnished voluntarily to the Department of Homeland Security from being made available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act if (1) the provider would not customarily make the record available to the public; and (2) the record is designated and certified by the provider as confidential and not customarily made available to the public. [The bill] allows a provider to withdraw the confidential designation of a record at any time." Currently, the Homeland Security Act (HSA) requires that the government not disclose information disclosed by companies about their potential vulnerabilities to terrorism. H.R. 2526 would also have restored legal protections for corporate whistleblowers and eliminated the provision in the HSA which prevents the government from acting upon information acquired from corporations who "voluntarily disclose" information.

Electronic Government Act of 2002

President Bush signed the Electronic Government Act on December 17, 2002. For more information on this legislation, see the Statement on E-Government Act by Sharon A. Hogan, University Librarian, University of Illinois, before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, on behalf of the ALA, AALL, and ARL, July 2001 (PDF).

Homeland Security Act of 2002

After the events of September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002. In addition to creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the law contains two provisions that could exempt information from public access. Both the Critical Infrastructure Information (CII) and Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) provisions undermine corporate and government accountability and threaten community right-to-know by hiding information from the public about infrastructure vulnerabilities or any other "sensitive" information.

ARL signed a statement of support to fix the vague FOIA exemption and restrictions on government use of information in the Critical Infrastructure Information Subtitle of the Homeland Security Act.



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