• Prof. Lamdan

FOIA & The Public Interest

As we focus on the FOIA exemptions, I want to point out some non-exemption rationales for agencies' FOIA responses, including weighing "public interest" considerations and "reasonably describing" the records requested.

The federal government often determines whether records should be available to the public, and assesses how much money FOIA requesters should be charged, by weighing the public's interest in having access to the particular records against other interests like government's burdens, privacy interests, etc.:

Public Interest Considerations in an Exemption 6 (Personal Privacy) Context:

To determine whether Exemption 6 has been properly invoked by an agency, a court will weigh the privacy interest against the public interest. The court will look at “the extent to which disclosure of the information sought would ‘she[d] light on an agency's performance of its statutory duties’ or otherwise let citizens know ‘what their government is up to.’”

This is often referred to as the “central purpose” requirement, as the FOIA’s core purpose is said to be to open government operations to public review.

Public Interest Considerations for Assessing FOIA Fees:

According to FOIA Section (a)(4)(A)(iii), "Documents shall be furnished without any charge or at a charge reduced below the fees [...] if disclosure of the information is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester."

(Prior to the 1986 FOIA amendments, there were no fee categories, and FOIA simply stated that "fees should be waived or reduced wherever that was found to be "in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.")

The EPA has a nice description of how it considers the public interest when assessing FOIA fee waivers.

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