The Freedom of Information Act (5 USC § 552) (FOIA) is one of the most important legal tools citizens and reporters have for furthering government transparency and accountability in the United States.
FOIA is an acronym for the Freedom of Information Act, which itself is an abbreviated title of a U.S. federal law first passed in 1966 that took effect the following year. Codified at 5 U.S.C. § 552 and signed into law by LBJ, it was enacted for the stated purpose of implementing “a philosophy of full government agency disclosure”.
FOIA is an important tool because, as the saying goes, “Knowledge is Power.” Any democratic government must always ultimately be run For and By the People – not by those in elected office. Without legislative machinery like FOIA working at high gear, politicians might be more inclined to abuse their power with the knowledge that their actions could be kept from the general public’s eyes.
The U.S. Department of Justice states that “FOIA … keeps citizens in the know about their government”. Likewise, a landmark case in our nation’s Supreme Court determined that: “[FOIA’s] basic purpose is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to …. a democratic society, … to check … corruption and … hold … governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978).
We recently used FOIA to request records of EPA discussions, communications and the like regarding its consideration of Montana’s new nutrient variance rule (click here to read more about our work on that issue). Through this FOIA request we expect to learn the ‘meat and potatoes’ of how EPA is looking at new water pollution control rules from the state and what they see as legally or scientifically flawed.
Understanding how the EPA considers Montana’s new rules then informs how we at Upper Missouri Waterkeeper can use science and the law to hold our government accountable to enforce strong river health standards that protect our waterways and communities from pollution. Indeed, the ability of the average citizen in our country to be able to request information on the activities of the government and elected officials is a powerful tool. It makes politicians drastically more accountable for their actions and dramatically improves government transparency, all towards protecting our communities and quality of life!
Click here to read our recent FOIA to EPA concerning Montana’s new, numeric nutrient variance rule.