This material is adapted from Dan Nguyen’s researching your first FOIA and send your first FOIA assignments.

One powerful tool journalists have for getting data is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives Americans the right to access information from the Federal government. State governments have similar information transparency laws. Anyone can use these rights, but journalists probably are the most adept at making FOIA requests.

We may end up using our FOIA rights to get more data as the course progresses, but we’ll start with a (relatively) simple one. My goals for this assignments are for you to:

Just like the Wikipedia assignment, it is very likely that you will fail at this attempt, so I am not grading you on your ability to successfully get data from the FBI, just the fact that you attempted to.

We will begin by FOIA-ing an FBI file of someone who is deceased. The reason for this is because living people fall under the Privacy Act and we want to increase our chances of getting a response. You need to have proof that the person is deceased, which probably means you need a published obituary of the person.

Individually, or in a group of two, you should identify an individual who you believe is “notable” (i.e. may actually have an FBI file, and/or is enough of a “public figure” you believe the data the FBI has on them is of interest to the public). Because Peter Higgins already automatically requests FBI files of everyone in the NYTimes obit section, you should use another source to identify individuals. You can just use another newspaper, such as The Boston Globe or The LA Times. You could also think of famous Smithies and investigate their obituaries. You may want to use some of the Smith library news resources.

You should check to make sure the person you identify hasn’t already had their FBI file made public. You can google “[name of person] fbi foia,” but it’s also a good idea to check a few likely places a file would be posted:

Once you have identified an individual, you will use the online FBI FOIA request form. The form will ask you for information about you, as well as the deceased individual. If you feel uncomfortable filling this out with your name, let me know and I will submit for you. I can show you an example of all the questions you will be asked. You will need to know the individual’s birth date and death date to complete the form.

You will need to include a physical mailing address in your request. Again, if you don’t want to use your own, you may use mine:

Amelia McNamara
211 McConnell Hall
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063

When you get confirmation of your request, forward me a copy of it.