You may find a time when you want to see the documents available to the public about yourself or your food or agriculture operation. There are two main federal statutes that guide the process of obtaining information from the federal government: (i) Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and (ii) Privacy Act (“PA”). In New York, requests can be made to state administrative agencies through the NY Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”).
Background and Applicability
FOIA (pronounced “foi-ya”) was enacted in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson who believed that a democracy works best with transparency in the system without harming national security. There is no longer a burden to show that you “need to know” the requested information. Instead, you have a “right to know.” The burden is now on the government to show its need for secrecy.
However, this “right to know” does not come without limitations. A FOIA request can only be made to federal government agencies, which broadly include government corporations (e.g., Federal Crop Insurance Corporation), government controlled organizations, and independent regulatory agencies (e.g., Library of Congress, Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service). FOIA is not applicable to private companies or persons who receive federal contracts or grants, or to private organizations.
Additionally, the PA allows U.S. citizens seeking information about themselves to receive greater information than what would typically be released to the general public. The primary purpose of the PA is to provide individuals with more control over the gathering, dissemination, and accuracy of information about themselves contained in government files, and to promote greater privacy for citizens. The PA serves to protect agriculture producers and food entrepreneurs from citizens’ groups that may wish to obtain private information about their property or farming operation.
Even though FOIA and PA only apply to federal government agencies, every state has enacted its own open public records acts or right-to-know acts that are applicable to state and local governmental agencies. In New York, Public Officers Law (“POL”) § 84 et seq. establishes the Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”). If you are unsure whether your documents are regulated by the federal or state agency, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) or New York Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”), it is best to make two separate requests– one request to the federal agency citing FOIA/PA and another to the New York governmental agency citing FOIL.
This is an excerpt from my first book that I co-authored with Pat Dillon, an Iowa agriculture lawyer titled “Field Manual: Legal Guide for New York Farmers and Food Entrepreneurs” available on CreateSpace, Amazon, Kindle and iBooks. You can find out more about this book here.