Freedom of Information Act 2018-02-12T16:00:20+00:00

Freedom of Information

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act
The VPA values an open and transparent government. We also value a vibrant and diverse press and an informed citizenry, which we believe are the pillars of a healthy democratic society. But most importantly, we value the public’s right to know.

The VPA believes in the public’s right to know what its government is doing. One of the major ways both the press and citizens can keep tabs on their government is through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

FOIA is the bedrock of government transparency, both at the state and federal levels. It ensures the right to know. The first line of the Virginia FOIA reads: “The statute ensures citizen access, with certain exceptions, to records and meetings of state and local government.” It is that access to records and meetings that serve as pillars for a transparent and open government.

Each year the VPA publishes the Reporter’s Guide to FOIA. The guide includes: the full FOIA statute in Virginia, amendments made to the statute that will be taking effect in the current year, examples of FOIA requests, contact information for the VPA’s FOIA Hotline and more.

FOIA Resources in Virginia

Northern Virginia
Jay Kennedy, The Washington Post
(202) 334-7869; Jay.kennedy@washpost.com
Kalea Seitz Clark, The Washington Post
(202) 334-7946; Kalea.clark@washpost.com
James A. McLaughlin, The Washington Post
(202) 334-7988; James.mclaughlin@washpost.com

Tidewater and Central Regions
John Edwards, The Smithfield Times
(757) 357-3288; editor@smithfieldtimes.com
David Ress, The Daily Press
(757) 247-4535; dress@dailypress.com

Upper-Middle Shenandoah Valley Region
Maria Montgomery, The Winchester Star
(540) 665-4941; Mmontgomery@winchesterstar.com
Lawrence McConnell, The Roanoke Times
(540) 981-3210; Lawrence.mcconnell@roanoke.com

Southside and Southwest Regions
Megan Schnabel, The Roanoke Times
(540) 981-3340; Megan.schnabel@roanoke.com

Northern Neck Region
Dick Hammerstrom, Fredericksburg/VPA
(540) 371-4740; Rjhammerstrom@gmail.com

This hotline is set up for any VPA member to call if they have a question regarding a FOIA request. Each region of the state has a designated FOIA adviser.

Virginia FOIA Advisory Council is the designated council for all matters related to FOIA in Virginia.

Virginia Coalition for Open Government is an organization that specializes in advocating for more transparency in state government.

National Freedom of Information Coalition National organization that specializes in FOIA.

2.2-3700. SHORT TITLE. POLICY 
Commentary for §2.2-3700 

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted July 1, 1968. The statute ensures citizen access, with certain exceptions, to records and meetings of state and local government.

In FOIA’s 30-plus years, numerous amendments have been added and changes made. The 1999 General Assembly gave FOIA a major overhaul in an effort to clarify previously ambiguous provisions. Besides making substantive changes, the 1999 amendments also reorganized portions of the statute and stripped out some of FOIA’s cumbersome language.

In 2001, the statute was renumbered, though no major substantive changes were made. When reading over old court, Attorney General and Freedom of Information Advisory Council opinions for help in interpreting FOIA, you may have to “translate” the former statute numbers into the new numbers.

In 2004, the exemptions for disclosure to records were reorganized. Instead of a long list of 100-plus exemptions, which made searching for exemptions tedious, the exemptions are now found in one of seven broad categories. For example, all of the exemptions that deal with public safety are now found under one heading (§2.2-3705.2), while all agency-specific exemptions are found under another (§2.2-3705.7).

Current law states that local and regional government bodies cannot meet through electronic means (video- and teleconferences, for example). In 2005, however, new rules went into effect that allow state agencies to meet electronically under very specific circumstances and following very specific procedures. That section is found at §2.2-3708.

As for the policy behind FOIA, the Act’s objective, as declared by the General Assembly, is to guarantee access to public records and the meetings of government officials.

The pre-1999 statute directed that the exemptions under FOIA are to be interpreted narrowly. At the same time, the rest of FOIA’s provisions are to be interpreted liberally to improve citizen understanding of government workings. The 1999 amendments bolstered this general policy by adding an affirmative statement that all public records and meetings are presumed open.

The exemptions to disclosure of records and for closed meetings are discretionary, not mandatory. There is no penalty for releasing records that could be withheld under an exemption, though some provisions elsewhere in the Virginia Code or a federal law may prohibit disclosure. There is also nothing that says a meeting must be closed just because it could be closed under a meetings exemption.

FOIA encourages cooperation between citizens and government representatives, and it voids local government ordinances that conflict with its provisions.

For a comprehensive list of opinions interpreting FOIA over the years (by the courts, Virginia Attorneys General and the Freedom of Information Advisory Council, click here.

Also, if you have specific questions about FOIA, contact the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, toll-free, at 1-866-448-4100 or foiacouncil@dls.virginia.gov.

Your name, address, date

Dear (custodian of the records):

This is a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Virginia Code Section 2.2-3700 and following.

I request access to and copies of the following: (provide detail here).

If you determine that only portions of a file are exempted from release, I request that I be provided with all non-exempt portions. (I reserve my right to object to any withholding or deletion of any information.)

Please provide an estimate of costs prior to meeting my request.

If you have any questions concerning this request, I may be reached during normal business hours at (phone number).

I look forward to your response within five working days as provided by the Act.

Sincerely,

(Your name)

  • If your request is extensive and you are concerned about costs, you may prefer not to ask for copies now. When your needs are better focused, then request them.
  • Detail here as specific a description of the document(s) as you possibly can. Include dates, titles, originator, copies of news accounts about the subject matter, anything which will help you to get the document more quickly, forestall a response that your request is too vague, or shortcut extensive search fees unrelated to what you want.
  • Alternately, you may want to write: Please provide me with an estimate of costs prior to meeting my request if that estimate exceeds $___.