One of your fundamental rights as a U.S. citizen is access to public information. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires government agencies to release information to citizens upon request, with the goal of making government more transparent to its citizens. It’s undergone a number of changes since its inception in 1966, but it is a tool you have a right to utilize — and a tool you should utilize, especially when your rights are being stripped. Here’s how to use FOIA, why you should use FOIA, and how to use FOIA to uncover book challenges that may be happening in your own backyard.
First, an important note for anyone who works in public service, be it public libraries, public school libraries, public higher education institutions, government information services, or similar: if you don’t already know, you should know that any emails you send to and from your work email are subject to FOIA requests. This is why it’s imperative to keep a personal email and to do any personal emailing off work-related servers. You’ve likely seen that disclosure in email signatures, and it’s there for a reason. If you find yourself in a position where you need to reach out to the media or organization related to something going on in the work place, do it through a private email; this applies, too, to any communication you do via work-provided cell phones or other technology.
This is not comprehensive. Instead, this is a basic, how-to guide. Know what is and is not permitted under your own state and municipality.
How To Submit a FOIA Request
Most government organizations include on their website a way to submit FOIA requests. In a typical community, for example, the town’s website may have a link to where those requests can go. The county and state may have similar websites, as does the public school. You need to know the following to begin:
- Is the organization a government organization?
- What jurisdiction within the government does it fall (e.g. city, county, government)?
Once you’ve identified both, then you can head to the appropriate website. Through this guide, we’ll use the example of Wake County Public Library. This particular library system is a government organization and it’s part of the county’s jurisdiction.
You have two options from here for finding the FOIA form. You can head to the government’s website and search — for Wake County, search shows nothing — or you can flip through the on-site options to see where that form might live. This is time consuming for this example, but your community may make the form much easier to find.
The second option is to search the jurisdiction name in Google alongside FOIA. That’s where it pops up for Wake County.
Every community’s form is going to look different, and every one will give you an estimated time frame. Some will charge you for this information, though it’s not a charge for the information itself. It’s a charge for the time it takes to collect the information.
Note that schools may keep this information on their school board websites. Here’s what it looks like for the Wake County Public School System.
What Can I Ask For in a FOIA Request?
Before you begin to submit any request, see if the information you want is already publicly available. School board, library board, and most city, county, and state governmental councils keep their agendas and minutes on their website or they utilize a third-party website to host those documents (BoardDocs is a common one). You can find a lot of information this way, but note there might be a lag between when a meeting happens and when the minutes from that meeting are finalized and available.
The Wake County Public Library board does not make their minutes or agendas public on the government website. It’s also not searchable on the county website. If you wanted to get these records, you might use a FOIA.
Let’s take a look at a library board that does make these minutes available, though: Irving Public Library. The minutes are organized by year, and if you click on a year, you’ll see all of the minutes, the agenda, and where you’ll find a lot of really great information, the agenda/board packet (the language may be either one). Many organizations also post recordings of their meetings or live stream them, as well.
One of the reasons that writing letters to the library staff, administration, and board is emphasized a a powerful act in breaking censorship attempts is that these items are collected into these board packets and distributed to every board member at the meeting. They read them and can act upon them. In the January 2022 board packet for the Irving Public Library Board, you’ll see a lot of information, including another visit from one of the women who has waged a years-long campaign against collection materials in the library. This information will likely not make the news, but it’s information a citizen concerned with intellectual freedom should know — they will want to see what was said and make sure they write the board or show up to the next board meeting and express agreement with the library’s collection development policy as-is. This did not require a FOIA to acquire.
Irving offers an example of what is done well in putting information out there. Wake County’s lack of information, on the other hand, is where utilizing FOIA is going to be handy.
So what can you request in a FOIA? There may be some items that are not subject to requests, depending on your state or county, but for the most part, you can ask for the following:
- Board meeting minutes, agendas, and associated material relating to governmental business
- Any emails to, from, between, and among those with government-issued email addresses
- Text messages between and among those in a public meeting using official technology owned by the government (for example: texts between two school board members during a meeting)
This is a limited scope, of course, but the primary places where you may find book challenges or information about censorship in your community. FOIA allows for redaction of information, meaning that if you request certain items that feature information that isn’t public — the address of a private citizen, for example — it’ll be blacked out when items are sent back to you.
The Best Way To Get Information Quickly
Having the power to ask for whatever you want is incredible, but the secret to a good FOIA request that’s filled quickly and efficiently is getting specific in your request. Know what you want to find out, alongside keywords and key people. Your initial request may not turn up everything you hope to find, but it will help you find the chains of communication and where your hunt may need to go next.
In searching for information about the book Gender Queer being removed from Wake County Public Libraries, I made my targeted search very specific. I found the names and email addresses of the library’s top administrators, as well as those of the board members.
Set a target date range and choose some keywords to really make the work of the FOIA officer — the person who’ll be doing the searching — as easy ass possible. Here’s what the one I did for Wake County Public libraries looked like:
I’m requesting all of the minutes from Wake County Library Commission meetings between October 1, 2021 and December 15, 2021. I’m also requesting all emails between members of that commission and the director Michael J. Wasilick, deputy director Ann M. Burlingame, and Spokesperson Alice Avery which include the following words: LGBTQ, Queer, remove, weed, pull, censor, “Gender Queer” and “Maia Kobabe.” This request concludes with emails between Wasilick and Burlingame with those same words.
Days after submitting the request, I received the board minutes and a series of emails between and among the named parties about the book. I shared those emails in the article, connecting the dots between the emails and who made the decisions to pull the book.
There were a number of additional details within the emails that could have led to further FOIA requests, but thanks to the work of journalists and lawyers on this particular story, I decided not to pursue them.
That book is back on library shelves.
How To Use FOIA to Learn About Book Challenges in Your Community
In the toolkit for fighting book bans and challenges, I talked in-depth about the death of local journalism. As more and more small newspapers shut down, there are fewer reporters on the ground covering these beats. That means information doesn’t get distributed to the community like it once did. Instead, right-wing funded fake local news sites have popped up, creating a dangerous spread of misinformation.
Because the news isn’t able to cover every community, only the most salacious stories are reported. This isn’t denigrating that and the importance of that coverage. Instead, it’s meant to highlight the gaping holes in coverage and the information that’s not out there.
As a citizen, you have a right to know what’s going on in you community. FOIA is a tool you can — and should — feel empowered to use.
Book challenges showcase repeat titles, often coordinated from groups aiming to take down public educational institutions. If you want to keep ahead of possible challenges in your own home town, read and know what’s going on in meetings at the public institutions. If you see something that feels off, trust your gut. This is where you can file a FOIA request and seek information for confirmation. If you discover a challenge in progress or read a complaint about a book, you can take action by showing up to those board meetings in support of the material or the people working to keep that material in these public institutions.
Another reason to use these tools? To keep an eye on the governance of your public institutions. This last year has showcased just how those with anti-intellectual agendas are running for and getting seats on school and library boards in low-turnout local elections — and those voices are the ones being loudest and making the most disturbing choices in the room. Know who is running, what they’re doing, and step up and be part if you’re able to.
Exercise your rights as a citizen. In today’s modern world, one of the best tools for being informed, local news, has been defunded, and what’s replacing it offers an agenda, not facts. It’s fallen on individuals to do the work of oversight. Let this be an opportunity to be not just informed, but empowered and engaged in local issues that matter to you.
Again, the above is a starting point. Here are some additional resources both for keeping track of censorship and for utilizing your FOIA rights:
- MuckRock’s FOIA 101 is a giant guide to all things Freedom of Information Act. This will be far more comprehensive than you may ever need, but know this resource exists.
- PEN America’s report on educational gag orders will offer insight into the sorts of legislation aimed at harming public educational institutions. This ties into censorship and finding out who is behind these movements.
- EveryLibrary hosts the massive spreadsheet of book challenges and bans across the U.S., maintained and updated by Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson.
- Red Wine and Blue’s Book Ban Busters map of book challenges and their current status.
- Book Riot’s toolkit for fighting book bans and challenges, as well as our on-going coverage of all things censorship.