Background on the Guidelines and FOIA
On March 15, 2022, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released new guidelines favoring the disclosure of federal agency records under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, FOIA established a statutory right of public access to executive branch records. At a high-level, FOIA provides that any person has a legally enforceable right to obtain federal agency records subject to the Act to the extent that such records are not protected from public disclosure by one of FOIA’s nine exemptions. The Supreme Court has explained that “the basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry,” which is “needed to check against corruption and hold the governors accountable to the governed.”
The DOJ’s new guidelines direct federal departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness in administering FOIA and explicitly state that the DOJ will not defend nondisclosure decisions that fail to do so. Under the new guidelines, the executive branch should not withhold requested information that might fall within one of FOIA’s exemptions unless the relevant agency can identify a foreseeable harm or legal bar to disclosure. The guidelines also remind federal agencies that FOIA requires the proactive disclosure of records and emphasize that such agencies should make records more readily accessible without requiring individuals to file FOIA requests. As an example, the guidelines note that the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review will no longer require individuals to file FOIA requests to obtain copies of their own records of immigration court proceedings.
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