Freedom of information in the United States

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Freedom of information in the United States refers to the independent bodies of freedom of information legislation at the federal level and in the fifty states.

Federal level[edit]

The federal government is bound by several laws intended to promote openness in government. However, these normally apply only to federal bodies, leaving many institutions exempt compared to their counterparts in other countries.

Federal legislation[edit]

This mammoth, 2169-page desk reference contains an extensive selection of many of the most useful CRS reports on various intelligence law topics arising under all relevant titles of the United States Code.

The most important was the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law on July 4, 1966, by President Lyndon Johnson.

Proposed legislation[edit]

Miscellaneous Authoritative Federal Sources[edit]

U.S. Attorney General Memorandums[edit]


The Holder Memo is part of series of policy memos on how federal agencies should apply FOIA exemptions. Beginning in 1977 with Attorney General Griffin Bell, and continued by Attorney General William French Smith in 1981 and Attorney General Janet Reno in 1993, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced how the executive branch should approach FOIA, its application, and DOJ's defense of agency's actions. In other words, DOJ’s position on when they would defend in a FOIA suit has seesawed for about the last three decades.

Reno Memo[edit]

The Reno Memo[4] established a "presumption" in favor of disclosure by providing that "it shall be the policy of the Department of Justice to defend the assertion of a FOIA exemption only in those cases where the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would be harmful to an interest protected by that exemption". It encouraged all government agencies to review FOIA requests in a manner most favorable to openness and to release information, even though it might fall within one of the nine exemption categories, if no “foreseeable harm” would result from the disclosure. The goal was to achieve the “maximum responsible disclosure”.

Ashcroft Memo[edit]

On October 12, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a policy memorandum on FOIA to all federal executive agencies. The AG declared the Department of Justice (DOJ) would defend agencies’ decisions to withhold documents from a FOIA requester under one of the statute's exemptions "unless they lack a sound legal basis or present an unwarranted risk of adverse impact on the ability of other agencies to protect other important records".

The Ashcroft Memorandum reversed the Reno standard. Agencies were told that in making discretionary FOIA decisions they should carefully consider the fundamental values behind the exemptions—national security, privacy, government’s interests, etc.—and to lean in their favor whenever possible. The Ashcroft Memo[5] with its "sound legal basis" standard encouraged (or at least seemed to support) greater use of FOIA exemptions by federal agency personnel.

AG Holder Memo[edit]

The Ashcroft Memo was rescinded by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 14, 2009. The AG Holder Memo[6] appears to have reinstated the Reno Memo standard and extends the policy. The policy of the executive branch is to be open, responsive, transparent, and accountable. The current memo encourages the maximum disclosure possible in discretionary exemptions and to, whenever possible, reasonably segregate exempt information and release the rest.

State legislation[edit]

All fifty U.S. states also have freedom of information laws that govern documents at state and local levels.[7]

The provisions of these laws vary considerably by state.[8] Florida, Ohio, and Vermont are known for having pro-access freedom of information laws. Florida was one of the first states to enact an open government sunshine law. Other jurisdictions, such as Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, were until recently known for being relatively non-transparent but have since made significant changes to their open government laws to foster greater public access to information.[9]

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court found that Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, which granted only Virginia residents access to public records, does not violate the Privileges and Immunities Clause or Commerce Clause (specifically, the Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine) of the United States Constitution.[10]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Gold, Hadas (26 February 2014). "House unanimously passes FOIA bill". Politico (blog). Retrieved 19 April 2015. 
  2. ^ FOIA, Act No. H.R. 1211 of 25 February 2014. Retrieved on 19 April 2015.
  3. ^ "Freedom of Information Act". 
  4. ^ "FOIA Update: Attorney General Reno's FOIA Memorandum". 
  5. ^ "New Attorney General FOIA Memorandum Issued". 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "State Public Record Laws". FOIAdvocates. 
  8. ^ National Freedom of Information Coalition. "State Freedom of Information Laws". National Freedom of Information Coalition. Retrieved 23 March 2015. 
  9. ^ "Open Government Guide" (Sixth ed.). Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 2011. 
  10. ^ [v. Young], No. 12-017, 569 U.S. ___, slip op. at 1-2 (2013)

External links[edit]