This Fourth of July marks the fifty-sixth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Amending the disclosure section of the Administrative Procedure Act, the FOIA transformed what had widely been considered a withholding statute to a disclosure statute that would provide the greatest possible access to federal agency records.
The significance of this new law was emphasized at the very beginning with Attorney General Clark’s June 1967 memorandum on the implementation of the FOIA. Issued to executive departments and agencies one month before the law took effect, the Attorney General declared: “If the government is to be truly of, by, and for the people, the people must know in detail the activities of government. Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy. Self-government, the maximum participation of the citizenry in affairs of state, is meaningful only with an informed public.”
The United States Supreme Court has also since explained that the “basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” The “FOIA is often explained as a means for citizens to know ‘what their Government is up to.’” The Supreme Court has stressed that “[t]his phrase should not be dismissed as a convenient formalism.” Rather it, “defines a structural necessity in a real democracy.”
Over the past fifty-six years, FOIA professionals across the government have been steadfast in their commitment to making the goals of the FOIA a reality for hundreds of thousands of requesters each year amid changes in technology, staggering increases in the volumes of agency records, and high demand for government information. The Department continues to encourage agency compliance with the FOIA and, through various government-wide initiatives such as the Chief FOIA Officers Council, strives towards continued innovation in FOIA administration.
On March 15, 2022, during Sunshine Week, Attorney General Garland issued new FOIA Guidelines that underscore the importance of the FOIA to government transparency and our democracy. The Guidelines update and strengthen the government’s commitment to the fair and effective administration of the FOIA focusing on applying a presumption of openness, proactive disclosures, and removing barriers to access and reducing FOIA backlogs.
On July 4th, as we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we also celebrate the enactment of the FOIA, an indispensable tool for the public to exercise their right to know what their government is up to, a cornerstone of our democracy.