The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law on Independence Day 1966. The nation's media provided the lobbying impetus for passage of the legislation, which armed reporters with the means to ferret out important stories. At the same time, the law provided the average citizen better access to government information. Since then, countless FOIA requests have yielded documents on matters ranging from the mundane to the momentous. It has become a favored tool of muckrakers, although it is by and large still an underutilized investigative device.
The fundamental feature of the Act is that it created a general rule, subject to certain exceptions, that any person has a right, enforceable in court, of access to federal agency records. Before 1966, the burden was on the individual to show a particular legal right to receive any information. FOIA has replaced a "need to know" standard with a presumption of a "right to know."
But that doesn't mean that it's always easy to get the information you're looking for. You may have to fight for your right to know. Fortunately, there's no shortage of good information on using the federal Freedom of Information Act. Here are a few of the best, most comprehensive resources:
A Citizen's Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act
1993 report published by the House of Representatives.
The Freedom of Information Act: A User's Guide
By the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, a nonprofit project of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Litigation Group.
Society of Professional Journalists' FOIA Resources
Includes lists of contacts at federal agencies and in every state.