Want a copy of a parking ticket? Information about a long stalled city construction project? Or details about a city contract?
FOIL, or Freedom of Information Law, is the answer — if you’ve got patience and persistence.
FOIL requires city agencies and departments to hand over public documents. Journalists use the law to force city bureaucrats to share information from police video surveillance footage to speed camera data detailing obstructed license plates to a list of yeshivas failing to provide a basic secular education to their students.
But it can also be a valuable tool for any New Yorker.
Here’s how to use it, avoid possible pitfalls, and learn best practices from experts and THE CITY’s reporters:
What is a FOIL request?
The New York State Freedom of Information Law obligates public agencies to hand over records — with some exceptions (more on that later). Supporters of the law say it makes the government more transparent by sharing records that impact New Yorkers.
At the federal level, FOIA, or the Freedom of Information Act, gives people access to similar public documents.
How do I file a FOIL?
The easiest way is to submit your request online via the city’s portal. You can select the agency and detail what type of information you’re requesting. The portal also shows other requests made and if they are currently being worked on or completed.
One helpful note: the online portal asks for a subject line to describe your request. If you don’t want the public to see your request, keep that line vague. You do not need to explain exactly what you are seeking in that area.
Not a big fan of going online? No sweat! New Yorkers can also mail an agency’s so-called FOIL officer the request. Each agency should have that person and a mailing address listed somewhere on its website. Many do not.
A helpful tool for finding that information, and other important city officials, is the New York’s Green Book. That has a list of top officials at each agency and their office phone numbers.
While that list doesn’t typically include a FOIL officer, it does note the agency’s general counsel, who oversees that unit. Someone in that office should be able to direct you to the proper person. Get ready to get on the phone and bug them a bit to make sure your request gets to the right desk.
What does a FOIL request look like?
The request can simply be an informal letter submitted into the city’s online portal. It can also be a more formal filing that includes reminders how the law works. A list of different options — many federal requests — and examples of requests can be found through MUCKROCK, a transparency nonprofit. People can also use the site to file their requests. Here is their FOIL overview about submitting requests in New York State.
What can and can’t be FOILed?
From the city’s Open Records website: “The FOIL definition of records is very broad and includes information found in paper and electronic documents and audio and visual recordings.”
Zoom meetings? Fair game!
Emails? You bet!
Some 911 calls? Those, too!
But there are exceptions — mostly for individual privacy or public safety — and some agencies, like the Police Department, frequently cite them to block requests.
For example, in 2016, the NYPD suddenly cited a state statute, known as 50-a, to block reporters and the public from viewing the conclusions of internal administrative trials involving cops charged with wrongdoing. The State Legislature four years later repealed the statute, which also blocked the release of personnel and disciplinary files.
As for other FOIL set asides, any record that could jeopardize public safety is exempt from disclosure.
That includes things like data that would “reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures, except routine techniques and procedures,” according to New York Public Officers law.
The city Correction Department is also not required to detail the architectural plans of its jails — or plans in case of an emergency or an escape.
More broadly, the exemptions also include something referred to as “inter-agency” communications. That is emails or any other type of communication between city officials within their own agency or another department. That carve out is to allow city workers to conduct business and to discuss possibly sensitive matters without being worried about those talks becoming public.
In a recent headline case, former mayor Bill de Blasio and his legal team argued that emails between and a group of political consultants in the private sector should be blocked because they served as “agents of the city.”
In May 2018, an appeals court eventually ruled that the emails were fair game and should be disclosed to the public. Among those things, the emails showed his disdain for the media and criticism he faced for working out at a Park Slope gym after a firefighter was shot. They also revealed he was seeking to boost his national profile shortly after he first took office.
New Yorkers also can’t ask an agency to create a record, or a data analysis, that doesn’t exist. Agencies are not required to create records based on a specific request.
How long does it take?
By law city agencies are required to acknowledge each request within five business days. Many agencies have an automatic response to each request made via the online portal.
The initial acknowledgement should include an estimated time for the request to be completed. But many agencies don’t share that timeline.
As for the final response, it really depends on how much information you are seeking and which agency. Some like the NYPD and the city’s Department of Transportation are notorious for dragging out responses. They typically seek multiple extensions, sometimes for months or years.
Others, like the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, which adjudicates city worker disciplinary cases and a multitude of other issues, has a reputation for turning over documents far sooner. Similarly, the city comptroller distributes city contracts through FOIL requests, and typically sends them within a day or two after a request is made.
Do FOIL requests cost anything?
There’s no fee to make a request and almost all documents are produced without a charge. But agencies can ask to pay for photocopies or copies of a disc. To avoid costly expenses tied to copies or data, it’s a good idea to include a line or two in your request asking to be notified if fees rack up beyond a limit you set, like $25 or $50.
What if my request is rejected?
New Yorkers are allowed to appeal a FOIL rejection decision, but must do so within 30 days. The initial decision typically includes the name and contact information of an appeals officer, usually an agency attorney, who handles those requests.
From the city’s FOIL portal: “Your appeal letter should state the reason you are appealing and why the agency’s response to the request was improper.”
Any other tips?
Keep requests as detailed as possible. If you’re seeking a record it helps to know the exact name of the document.
“Be as specific as possible,” said Rob Rickner, a civil rights lawyer who has filed multiple FOILs.
If you’re asking for emails, do your best to ask for exchanges between specific people or groups. If you’re looking for records within a specific time, be as precise with dates as you can.
Also, check NYC Open Data before filing a request. That’s where the city publishes a ton of information on a rolling basis. That data includes parking ticket information, 311 calls, class size information, and green taxi trip information, to name a few.
One of the most important parts of the FOIL process is staying in touch with the FOIL officer and making sure the request hasn’t been forgotten or put on the backburner.
“Anytime you make a FOIL request, you need to be prepared for the possibility that you may face significant delays in receiving a response,” said Heather Murray, managing attorney of Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic.
Murray, who represents THE CITY in FOIL suits against the Department of Education and NYPD, said creating a relationship is key.
“Establishing a rapport with an agency’s FOIL Officer over the phone or in person, which is oftentimes easier to do in smaller communities, can help,” she said. “And while requesters can file appeal letters on their own, getting an attorney involved early on when possible can also sometimes help avoid the need to file suit altogether if a request is improperly delayed or denied.”
Also, “always appeal” rejections even if you think it’s a long shot, said Stephanie Plantin, an associate attorney who works Rickner.
“The appeals officer will take a second look,” she said.
The law also doesn’t allow agencies to say they don’t have enough resources to fulfill the requests, she added.
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