Freedom of information is instrumental to journalism and essential for democracy. FOI laws grant you the right to know what your government is doing — how it spends your tax dollars, how it creates and implements policy and how it makes decisions that affect you.

Before you can use the Freedom of Information Act for your research or reporting, you need to know how the act can serve you. FOIA applies to every federal agency, department, regulatory commission, government-controlled corporation and "other establishment" in the executive branch of the federal government. This includes:

  • Cabinet offices, such as the departments of Justice and Defense (including the FBI, the INS and the Bureau of Prisons)
  • Independent regulatory agencies and commissions such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission;
  • "Government-controlled" corporations, such as the Postal Service and Amtrak
  • Presidential commissions
  • FOIA also applies to the Executive Office of the President and the Office of Management and Budget, but not to the president or the president's immediate staff.

The act does not apply to:

  • Congress
  • The federal court system
  • Private corporations
  • Federally funded state agencies

However, documents generated by these groups and filed with executive branch agencies of the U.S. government become subject to disclosure under the act.

Taken from Freedom of Information and Your Right to Know, a self-directed course developed in partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists at Poynter NewsU.

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