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I want to file a FOIA request, but I don't know how. Any advice?

Question | FOIA/OMA
I want to file a FOIA request but I don't know how. Any advice?

Below are some easy steps to make your FOIA request official and in line with the law. 

  1. Prepare your request: make sure your request is narrow and the info you’re asking for is public information 
  2. Put your request in writing (even if it’s just an email) 
  3. Find out who the FOIA coordinator is and address your letter/email to them 
  4. Be specific about the info you want so the FOIA coordinator can find it Let the FOIA coordinator know you’re requesting documents under FOIA and name the law. 
  5. Find your state’s FOIA law here:
  6. Be polite and stay in contact. If things don’t go according to plan, try to talk to the FOIA coordinator to work out the problem


1. Review the Info You're Asking for

The first thing you want to do is to make sure the info you’re looking for is actually part of the public record. Remember, you can’t get things like medical records, building blueprints, and other personal info through a FOIA request. Certain people (like the Governor, in some states) can also refuse to answer FOIA requests. [For more information on things you can’t request for FOIA, click here].  

If the info is part of the public record, ask yourself how much of the info you really need. A narrow request is easier (and less expensive) for a FOIA coordinator to answer than a request for a lot of info. For example, it is easier to gather a week’s worth of emails between two specific people than to retrieve every email a person has received in the past six months.

Make sure your request is specific! The more specific you are, the easier it will be for the FOIA coordinator to find the info you’re asking for.

2. Find the FOIA Coordinator

More often than not, whoever you’re trying to get information from will have dedicated someone specific to take care of FOIA requests, aka the FOIA coordinator. It’s usually easy to find this designated person through a quick Google search (FOIA coordinator for X) or even a phone call. This is an important step—you want to send your request to the right person so that your request is processed quickly and you get a response sooner than later!

3. Put Your Request in Writing

So, you’re ready to send your FOIA request! The only real requirement is that your request has to be in writing. You can’t call and demand a FOIA request over the phone or just show up and ask in person (you can still get good information that way, but it will not be a formal FOIA request). Your request doesn’t have to be a printed letter—an email will work just the same. 

You can word a FOIA request however you want, but here are a few tips:

  • Be polite! It will make the whole process easier and you may even get your request sooner 
  • Let them know who you are: you don’t have to say that you’re a student, but sometimes it helps  
  • Remind them of the law: Mention the FOIA law in your state by name (for example, MCLA 15.231 is Michigan’s FOIA statute) and include a gentle reminder that the law requires a response within a certain number of days.  
  • Find your state’s FOIA law here: 
  • You don’t have to tell them why you want the information: even if you get a response asking why you want the info, you don’t have to give a reason. FOIA allows information to be freely accessed by the public. 

4. Pay Attention to the Response

Remember, FOIA gives you rights.

  • Time: FOIA law always has a guideline to how many days the government has to respond from the time they receive your request. If the law says they have 5 business days, and you haven’t heard anything for two weeks, the government is violating the law. 
  • Cost: The government can charge you for the time and effort it takes to get the information you request. BUT they can’t charge you a crazy expensive fee just so you’ll give up your request. For example, charging $8,000 to get a week’s worth of emails between the principal and the school board is way too expensive! 

5. What do I do If Something Goes Wrong?

If your request doesn’t go as planned (you’ve been ignored, you’ve been rejected, you’ve been given a bill for $8,000, etc.) don’t panic! The first step you could take is to check in with the FOIA coordinator, or whoever you sent your request to. If they didn’t respond, did the request get lost in a spam folder? If they’re charging you too much money, can you narrow your request?

If they’re still giving you the run-around, there are other routes to take before going to court. For example, one student who was charged $8,000 for a FOIA request published his story in a local newspaper, putting pressure on the school until it agreed to provide answers to a narrower version of his request for little or no cost!

If all else fails, you could always go to court, but this should be only as a last resort. Going to court is a long and expensive process!

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