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FOIA News: Cause of Action Addresses D.C. Circuit's Rejection of 'Non-Responsive' Redactions

FOIA News (2015-16)Kevin SchmidtComment

There is No Tenth Exemption

By James Valvo, Cause of Action, August 17, 2016

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) provides access to records, not information.  This may seem like a minor distinction but in the FOIA world it can mean the difference between uncovering government wrongdoing and having your request rejected because it was poorly thought out.  The distinction also means that when agencies are conducting a search for responsive records they should not be able to withhold portions of information contained within responsive records, unless that information falls within one of the nine statutory exemptions.  There is no “tenth exemption” that allows agencies to withhold information within responsive records just because that information is non-responsive to the request.

An examination of the statute’s terms confirms this analysis.  The statutory section that empowers requesters to get documents from the government speaks in terms of “records”  not “information.”  FOIA requires “each agency, upon any request for records which (i) reasonably describes such records and (ii) is made in accordance with published rules . . . shall make the records promptly available to any person.”[1]  The agency must search, “manually or by automated means, agency records for the purpose of locating those records which are responsive to a request.”[2]

The statutory language that allows requesters to access “records” is limited by agencies’ ability to withhold portions of those records if one of the nine statutory exemptions applies.[3]  However, the agency may only redact exempt information and any “reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be provided to any person requesting such record after deletion of the portions which are exempt under this subsection.”[4]  FOIA “does not authorize withholding of information or limit the availability of records to the public, except as specifically stated in this section.”[5]

Taken together, these provisions mean that requesters can access agency records and agencies may only withhold portions of those records if they fall within one of the nine statutory exemptions.  They are not authorized to withhold any other information.

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