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Reviewing Documents


It’s a good idea to think about what you hope to do with any documents you get before the government begins producing them for you, especially if you have a large request that might yield hundreds or even thousands of pages of material.

There are several types of information we have found helpful to track when reviewing FOIA documents that may make it easier to get through large quantities of material quickly. These are:

  • Bates number (An index number that appears at the bottom of each document and is sequential: “001, 002, 003…”)
  • Date of the document
  • Geography (for example, the state or city associated with the document’s content)
  • Key names of individuals mentioned in a document
  • Type of document (email, letter, spreadsheet, memo, etc.)
  • Brief summary of the document (1-2 sentences)
  • Whether it is a priority document for advocacy purposes
We have created a basic template and instructions for doing FOIA document review which you can download here.

Redactions and FOIA exemptions

Government agencies are permitted to “redact” or black out, documents, in part or in their entirety, if they determine the information is “exempt” from disclosure under federal law. There are nine exemptions that a federal agency can use to try to justify redacting a document, which we have listed below. Remember that for state records requests the exemptions may have different names or numbers, though many will be similar in substance.

You should always remind the agencies in your request that they must tell you why they are redacting part of a document – which means at a minimum marking each redaction with an exemption number.

List of federal FOIA exemptions

The federal exemptions are listed in a section of the FOIA statute beginning with the small letter “b,” 5 U.S.C. 552(b). Because of this, when a federal agency redacts part of a document, they will label that redaction with the exemption beginning with “b” – for example, “(b)(5)”. The exemptions are:

(b)(1): Properly classified information

(b)(2): Internal personnel rules and practices

(b)(3): Documents exempted by a statute other than FOIA, if exemption is absolute

(b)(4): Trade secrets and confidential/privileged financial information

(b)(5): Information that would be privileged in civil discovery, e.g. attorney client privilege or inter- or intra-agency documents that reveal deliberative process

(b)(6): Personal/medical/similar files which, if revealed, would invade privacy

(b)(7): Records compiled for law enforcement purposes

(b)(8): Reports prepared by or for the use of agencies that regulate financial institutions

(b)(9): Documents that would reveal oil well data

Click here to read the full description of each exemption as written in the FOIA statute.

Publishing documents

It is also helpful to think early on in the process about how you plan to publish the documents you get. Are you going to provide them to a specific journalist who might write a story about them? Are you going to make some or all of the documents available on your organization’s website, or a new specific website just for your FOIA? Figuring out the logistics and initial strategy for the publication of documents can be helpful to do at the outset so that when you begin getting documents you can move quickly to make them available in ways that benefit your advocacy or campaign.