US GenWeb

Freedom of Information Laws - Federal and State

One of the most basic tools at the disposal of genealogical researchers is the official records that our ancestors left behind when they went about their legal obligations in life. Those records now reside in deed books, will books, probate files, various vital-record ledgers or register books and so on. Those books are now in the custody of various government authorities.

Sometimes the authorities who have custody of our ancestors' records are less than cooperative about allowing us access to these records. But Freedom of Information legislation gives us recourse when this happens.

Federal Government

At the federal level, the relevant legislation is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The "father of the Freedom of Information Act" was US Congressman John E. Moss (1915-1997), a Democrat from California, whose long years of dedication and undaunted endeavor culminated in the Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on 4 July 1966. The provisions of the FOIA entered into force exactly one year later, on 4 July 1967. The Act has since been amended on several occasions, most recently in 2002. You may view the full text of the FOIA as it stands after the 2002 amendments by clicking here. All departments of the US Government are bound by the provisions of this law, and in fact, one of the provisions of the amended Act is that every US Government agency, including the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), must maintain a Freedom of Information website.

The federal FOIA covers officials of the US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT only. State and local officials are not covered by this Act.

New York State Government

At the state level, things vary from one state to another. In the case of New York state, the relevant legislation is the Freedom of Information Law, often called the FOI Law or FOIL. You may view the full text of this law by clicking here.

New York state's FOI Law governs not only officials at STATE level but also officials at COUNTY, CITY, TOWN and VILLAGE level. Some of these local-level officials seem unaware of their obligations in respect of the FOI Law. For advice on how to use the provisions of the NY FOI Law to gain access to records when officials initially fail to cooperate, click here.

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Debby Masterson

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