There is no magic bullet when it comes to writing a FOIA

Sometimes at the Lucy Burns Institute, we get e-mails or phone calls from people seeking some guidance on how to word an open records request.

We’re always glad to get these calls. We’ve noticed, though, that some potential FOIA requestors believe that there is a perfect way to word a request such that you are more or less guaranteed to get the records you’re asking for.

This is a myth. The myth has sprung up because of all the records denials that people get where the government agency denying the records implies that their failure to deliver the requested documents is due to the incomprehensibility of the request they received, or its vagueness, or its overbroadness, or various other alleged faults of the request.

Often, good faith efforts on the part of the requestor to specify the records he or she wants is met with a passive-aggressive, game-playing denial by an official at a government agency who is not making a good faith effort to comply.

If the FOIA compliance officer at an agency that receives a request is filled with a moderate to strong desire to comply, that person will figure out how to fill it, rather than wearing the requestor’s time, patience, and financial and legal resources thin.

If you don’t get the public documents you’ve asked for, this is usually not because of a failure on your part to write the request in a perfect way that will trigger the response you want. It’s because the archivist isn’t particularly interested in getting you what you want.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona, is just one example–although a particularly egregious one.

See also The long and winding road of FOIA requests.


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