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Celebrating Forty-Six Years of the FOIA

This Fourth of July marked the forty-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.”
Forty-six years later, the importance of the FOIA’s enactment could not be clearer, as the public’s use of the FOIA to access government information has grown considerably since its implementation.  Between 1967 and 1971, the first four years the FOIA was in effect, the Justice Department received only 535 FOIA requests.  This past fiscal year alone, the Department received 63,103 FOIA requests, and the federal government as a whole received nearly 645,000 requests. With the public’s use of the FOIA increasing year after year, agencies continue to embrace President Obama’s FOIA Memorandum and Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines by making more information available to the public.  Federal agencies recently highlighted these efforts in their 2012 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, released during Sunshine Week 2012.  Many agencies have answered the President’s call to administer the FOIA with a presumption of openness and to increase the use of technology and proactive disclosures to put more information into the hands of the public without the need of a FOIA request. As progress continues to be made in various aspects of FOIA administration, there is still room for improvement.  In the upcoming weeks, OIP will issue a comprehensive assessment of agencies’ progress in their administration of the FOIA this past year, with guidance for further improvement.  With agencies continuing to receive record numbers of FOIA requests each year and taking steps to improve their administration of the FOIA, it is important to look back at the history of the law and celebrate its development over the past forty-six years in providing a foundation for a more open government and informed citizenry.  
Updated August 6, 2014