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Freedom of Information Act Guide

FOIA Guidelines

The purpose of these guidelines is to answer the most frequently asked questions about the Freedom of Information Act:

What is The Freedom of Information Act?

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was established in 1966 for the purpose of allowing private citizens greater access to government information.

FOIA sets standards for determining which records must be disclosed and which records may be withheld. A list of FOIA exemptions determines which categories of information the agency may withhold. However, FOIA also provides administrative and judicial remedies for those who are denied their request. Most importantly, FOIA requires all federal agencies to provide you with the fullest possible disclosure of information. It is our desire to assist you in obtaining this information.

On October 4, 1993, President Clinton and Attorney General Reno established an Openness in Government initiative. Among the principals of this initiative are:

  • Applying customer service attitudes toward FOIA requesters
  • Following the spirit as well as the letter of FOIA
  • Applying a presumption of disclosure in FOIA decision making
  • An agency should make a discretionary disclosure of exempt information whenever it is possible to do so without foreseeable harm to any interest that is protected by a FOIA exemption
  • An agency should withhold information under FOIA only when it is necessary to do so.

What is the Privacy Act?

The Privacy Act of 1974 is a companion to FOIA. It allows individuals access to federal agency records about themselves. It requires that personal information in agency files be accurate, complete, relevant, and timely. Additionally, each agency must publish a description of each system of records maintained by the agency that contains personal information.

How do I make a FOIA request?

You can fax, write, or email:

FOIA Requests
Office of General Counsel
National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 518
Washington, DC 20506

Sample FOIA Request

Here is an example of a FOIA request from A Citizen's Guide to Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records, published by the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 1997.

Dear FOIA Officer:

This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

I request that a copy of the following documents be provided to me: [Identify the documents or information as specifically as possible.]

In order to help to determine my status for purposes of determining the applicability of any fees, you should know that I am_______


  • I am a representative of the news media affiliated with the ____newspaper, magazine, television station, etc., and this request is made as part of news gathering and not for a commercial use.
  • I am affiliated with an educational or noncommercial scientific institution, and this request is made for a scholarly or scientific purpose and not for a commercial use.
  • I am an individual seeking information for personal use and not for a commercial use.
  • I am affiliated with a private corporation and am seeking information for use in the company's business.]

[Optional] I am willing to pay fees for this request up to a maximum of $____. If you estimate that the fees will exceed this limit, please inform me first.

[Optional] I request a waiver of all fees for this request. Disclosure of the requested information to me 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 my commercial interest. [Include specific details, including how the requested information will be disseminated by the requester for public benefit. Failure to include such details may result in a denial or a fee waiver.]

[Optional] I request that the information I seek be provided in electronic format, and I would like to receive it on a personal computer disk. [You may receive your request in either paper or, if available, electronic format. Please specify the precise format you prefer.]

[Optional] I ask that my request receive expedited processing because ________________. [Include specific details regarding your "compelling need" and specifics concerning your "urgency to inform the public."]

[Optional] I have included a telephone number at which I can be contacted during the hours of ______, if necessary, to discuss any aspect of my request.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

City, State, Zip Code
Telephone number [Optional]
fax number [optional]
email [Optional]

What information can I get through FOIA?

Are there documents I can access without a FOIA request?

Yes! In particular, there are many interesting and informative documents on our website which we encourage you to browse at your leisure. You'll find answers here to most questions you may have about the programs of the Arts Endowment. You'll also find a wealth of information about the grant application path, review panels, and the award process. You'll also find application materials and guidelines available on the web site, along with lists of other Endowment publications that you can obtain through our Communications Office.

What types of records can be obtained from the NEA through FOIA requests?

Here are some examples of the types of frequently requested documents which have routinely been released (after redaction of exempted information such as home addresses and phone numbers, and individual salaries):

Grant Records

  • Grant application materials
  • Grant award letters
  • Successful grant applications
  • Names of Grantee Board and staff
  • Revised Grantee budgets
  • Grantee staff biographies
  • Statements of artistic intent
  • Labor assurance forms
  • Requests for approval of project changes
  • Correspondence between grantees and the NEA
  • Project descriptions
  • Progress, interim, and final reports

Agency Operations

  • NEA staff lists
  • Congressional correspondence
  • Contract solicitations
  • Successful contract bids
  • Cooperative agreements
  • Lists of panelists subsequent to the panel meeting
  • Summary panel minutes

Does FOIA allow access to all NEA records?

No. FOIA provides nine specific exemptions that allow certain records to remain unavailable:

  1. classified national defense and foreign relations information
  2. internal agency rules and practices
  3. information that is prohibited from disclosure by another law
  4. trade secrets and other confidential business information
  5. inter-agency or intra-agency communiocations that are protected by legal privileges
  6. information involving matters of personal privacy
  7. certain information compiled for law enforcement purposes
  8. information relating to the supervision of financial institutions
  9. geological information on wells

In addition, just as FOIA provides greater public access to government documents subject only to these limited exemptions, the Privacy Act prevents certain personal and financial information from being disclosed to persons other than the subject of the information.

What categories of information CANNOT be obtained through FOIA?

The Arts Endowment may withhold information if it falls within one of the nine FOIA exemptions. The Endowment most frequently withholds information under exemptions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. By far the Endowment's most frequent basis for withholding information is FOIA exemption 6, which protects many types of personal information about grant applicants, grantees, and NEA personnel.

The most frequently withheld materials are:

Grantee proprietary information (exemptions 3 and 4), such as:

  • Plans and strategies for fundraising and lists of prospective donors
  • Records of panel deliberations
  • Copyrighted materials such as slides and videos

Internal deliberative materials (exemption 5) such as:

  • Site reports
  • Panel records

Personal information of grantees and third parties (exemptions 4 and 6) such as:

  • home addresses
  • phone numbers
  • social security numbers
  • marital status
  • dates and places of birth
  • awards and amounts given to grantees from non-federal third parties
  • medical information
  • resumes
  • salaries

Other exempted materials, such as:

  • Documents that are not agency records, such as personal records kept by agency employees, contractors, or grantees
  • Information that is part of an ongoing investigation
  • Attorney work-product
  • Rejected applications

I would like to find out what was said about my application. Can I request records and comments made at a meeting of the review panel?

No. Internal records are kept of the meetings where applications are reviewed and voted upon. However, so that peers of the applicants will feel free to discuss the applications candidly, it's necessary to keep all comments confidential.

An applicant (but not a third party) may request that we prepare a summary of the panel's discussion of its application. Brief summary minutes of panel meetings are available for public disclosure.

Why can't I find out who will be serving on the panel which will vote on my application?

We generally will not release the names of the panelists prior to the meeting of the panel. Release of panelist names prior to the panel meeting could risk a compromise in the integrity of the panel process or result in an invasion of the panelists' privacy should anyone attempt to contact panelists for the purpose of influencing the panel.

On request, we may release the panelists' names after the completion of the panel review process. For example, an applicant might believe that one of the panelists had a conflict of interest which unfairly prejudiced their review of the application. The applicant would need to know the identities of the panelists in order to make a determination on whether to seek reconsideration.

More information on the panel process can be obtained by accessing the directory on the NEA homepage.

Can I find out what was written about a particular project after it was subjected to an on-site review?

Site reports are never released and are protected under the FOIA exemptions. However, summary reports of panel discussions can be prepared upon request from the applicant. Brief summaries of the minutes of the panels are available to the public. These summaries are available to third parties only if they exist at the time of their request, and if they are retained within the grant record.

Will I be able to tell whether a substantial amount of information has been deleted from the records I receive?

Yes, your records will indicate that information has been deleted unless doing so would harm an interest protected by the list of FOIA exemptions.

Are there fees involved in requesting documents?

Depending upon the type of request, there are several categories of fees: search, review, duplication, computer programming, computer run time, and direct costs for special handling.

Commercial use requesters must pay all associated costs.

Non-commercial requesters can often have their requests answered quickly and without expense. However, it is the burden of the requester to pay for any incurred costs. The NEA is a federal agency and does not charge for answering FOIA requests beyond materials and labor. You must agree to pay for the costs before a record search will be done. It is suggested that you indicate a maximum amount you are willing to pay for costs. By doing so, we can make an assessment of whether your request can be answered within your budget. If not, we may be able to help you narrow your search and still provide you with the information you need.

Private citizens and non-profit organizations will be given the first 100 pages of duplication and the first two hours of search free of charge.

Requests from qualifying educational and scientific institutions, including members of the media, will be given the first 100 pages of duplication free.

You may be entitled to a fee waiver. Requesters are entitled to a waiver or a reduction in fees if they can show that disclosing the records "is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the regulations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester." However, the initial determination that the research subject is of legitimate public interest does not mandate an automatic fee waiver for follow-up requests. Documents sought in subsequent requests will be subject to the same scrutiny as the records for which the waiver was granted.

How long will I have to wait to receive the information I've requested?

The 1996 FOIA amendments also expanded the time an agency has to respond to a request from 10 days to 20 days (excluding Saturday, Sunday, and legal public holidays), effective October 2, 1997. At the signing of the law, President Clinton stated that this amendment recognizes that many FOIA requests are so broad and complex that they cannot possibly be completed even within this longer period, and the time spent processing them only delays other requests. Accordingly, (this law) establishes procedures for an agency to discuss with requesters ways of tailoring large requests to improve responsiveness. This approach explicitly recognizes that FOIA works best when agencies and requesters work together.

We are often able to respond without delay. In 1998, our median FOIA response time was 14.4 days. However, if for some reason your request will be delayed beyond the allotted response time you will be notified. If your request is particularly broad or so complex that it can not be completed within the allotted time, you may be asked to narrow your request or accept an additional delay. If the document you are looking for is available on the Endowment's Website, you may download it immediately.

What are the common reasons for delay?

  • Additional time is needed to search for documents.
  • The request is especially voluminous or complex.
  • It is necessary to consult with another agency before releasing documents.

Can my request be expedited?

Yes, under certain conditions. You must demonstrate a compelling need for a quicker response. A compelling need can be demonstrated by showing either:

Failing to obtain the records within the expedited deadline poses an imminent threat to an individual's life or physical safety.

- or -

The person making the request is someone who is primarily engaged in disseminating information and urgently needs the information expedited to inform the public concerning actual or alleged Federal Government activity.

If a delay in the response to your request would compromise a significant and recognized public interest, the expedition requirement would be satisfied. However, a general assertion of "the public's right to know" will not be sufficient to expedite a request.

What can I do if my FOIA request is denied?

If your FOIA request is denied, you have the right to appeal the denial to the head of the agency.

What can I appeal?

  • You may appeal a decision to withhold materials.
  • You may appeal for a waiver of fees.
  • You may contest the type or amount of fees that were charged.
  • You may appeal any other type of adverse determination.

How do I file a FOIA appeal?

Appealing to the head of an administrative agency under FOIA is a simple process. You do not need a lawyer to help you write an appeal. Your letter should identify what you are appealing and why you disagree with the agency's decision to withhold information. You should be as complete as possible. There is no charge for filing an administrative appeal.

Write to:

NEA Chairman
c/o Office of General Counsel
National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 518
Washington, DC 20506

Can I keep the NEA from releasing information about me to someone else?

This situation is called a "reverse FOIA." A reverse FOIA is when someone petitions or sues the agency to prevent it from releasing specific information. Unless the petitioner can show that the information in question is protected by a FOIA exemption, or would cause specific and serious harm if released, the agency may choose whether or not to release the information.