WHEN THE FREEDOM of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966--about five years before public trust in government started to crater as a result of the Pentagon Papers and then Watergate--it was a landmark law and an exciting, promising new tool for reporters, researchers, and concerned citizens. More than 50 years later, it is a wheezing, arthritic artifact of more optimistic times.
More people than ever want to know what the government is doing in their name and with their money. The number of submitted FOIA requests has steadily increased year-over-year, a trend that has only accelerated under the daily controversies of the Trump administration, which said it received roughly 800,000 such requests in 2017, a record. At the same time, despite recent legislation to strengthen the law, it's more difficult than ever to pry loose documents about the federal government. The Associated Press reported in March that the number of FOIA requests denied or censored by the feds also hit a record high in the first year of the Trump administration: "The times the government said it would be illegal under other U.S. laws to release requested information nearly doubled to 63,749."
Unsurprisingly, we also saw a record number of freedom-of-information lawsuits filed against various federal agencies in 2017. There were 651, according to The FOIA Project, which tracks federal public records litigation. That followed record numbers of FOIA suits in 2016 and in 2014. "Court backlogs of pending FOIA litigation have climbed even faster, with hundreds of cases waiting resolution," The FOIA Project reported in January. "Indeed, the backlog is already approaching 900 cases and unless steps are taken may top a thousand in the near future."
Adam Marshall, an attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says one explanation for the spike in lawsuits is "increased frustration with how badly the FOIA process at the administrative stage is failing."
"That's true on both substantive and procedural grounds," he continues. "Information is being withheld that shouldn't be, but also it's taking an incredibly long time to even get decisions about FOIA requests, to the point where people feel like they have no choice but to file a lawsuit to just get a response to their request."
If you don't have the money to lawyer up, you'll have to content yourself with waiting months, and often years, for documents...