• Prof. Lamdan

Reasonably Describing Records

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.


Please read the following case. The case interprets Section 3(a)(3) of FOIA, which says "each agency, upon any request for records which (A) reasonably describes such records and (B) is made in accordance with published rules [...] shall make the records promptly available to any person":


This case talks about classified records and a Vaughn Index, which may raise the question, "What is a Vaughn Index?" Here's a quick answer:


Agencies prepare Vaughn Indices when FOIA requesters challenge the agencies for withholding records. The Index will describe each record being withheld and provide a detailed justification for non-disclosure (which will often invoke FOIA exemptions or explain that the records are classified). Vaughn Indices are meant to help courts make "rational decisions" about whether the records must be produced without having to view the records themselves.


Vaughn Indices come in many forms. They may be an affidavits, narrative documents, charts, or a mix of these formats. The main goal of this document is to provide meaningful justification for withholding requested records. A Vaughn Index can sometimes be useful outside of a litigation setting, but agencies aren't required to compile these Indices during the FOIA process. (A requester whose FOIA request is still in the administrative stage of processing isn't entitled to a Vaughn Index.)


Vaughn Indices get their name from the court case that describes them, Vaughn v. Rosen.



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