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FOI for students:
A step-by-step guide

The Society of Professional Journalists seeks to maintain constant vigilance in protecting the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press and encouraging a climate in which journalism can be practiced freely. If you're unfamiliar with FOI laws, need help submitting a records request or simply don't know where to start, this guide can help.

Know before you go

Just what does the FOI law say?

Read the complete text of the Freedom of Information Act here. [nfoic.org]

What does it mean?

Federal Open Government Guide [rcfp.org]: Reporting can be greatly enhanced through use of FOIA, FACA and the Sunshine Act — and that starts with understanding how each law works.

What is your state law?

The Open Government Guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a complete compendium of information on every state's open records and open meetings laws. View each state's laws individually, or compare multiple states with yours. [rcfp.org]

Write a records request

Letter generators

State Open Records Law Request Letter Generator [splc.org]
FOIA Letter Generator [rcfp.org]

What if they say they can’t give it to you because of FERPA?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. Read the complete text of FERPA here. [ed.gov]

SPJ’s Reporter’s Guide to FERPA

Ever have a tough time getting public records from schools or universities? We feel your pain and are here to help you. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act has been twisted beyond recognition, keeping school lunch menus, graduation honors and athletic travel records secret. Take back your right to information.

SPJ on Demand video: Handling a denial

Don't be bullied by gatekeepers. Recognize the most typical denials to watch for and the best tactics for dealing with agencies that choose to violate the law. You'll also learn about resourceful tips for reducing or eliminating copy fees.

Does all this stuff not make sense?

Legal Advice

Talk to a real person who can answer real questions at the Student Press Law Center:

Know Your Rights
Virtual Lawyer
SPLC Legal Request Form


The Society's Legal Defense Fund is a unique account that can be tapped for providing journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. Application to the fund is approved by either a small committee or the national board, depending on the level of assistance sought. The committee works throughout the year raising funds for LDF. Learn more about LDF by following this link.

Additional free resources

SPJ FOI Toolkit

FOI Audits are a great way to monitor FOI compliance, build a group of journalists who have come up close and personal with FOI laws and demonstrate, once and for all, the weaknesses in state FOI laws. We've compiled everything you need to get started: training, do's and don'ts, document ideas for your requests and lots more.

Find FOI in your state

Get in touch with the Sunshine chair or chairs in your state and find FOI Centers, quotable sources, state FOI hotlines and more.

Open Doors: A guide to accessing government records

What would our profession do without the ability to access information held by government agencies? What would we do without state and federal Freedom of Information laws? SPJ's Open Doors project is a comprehensive guide not only to the Freedom of Information Act, but also to freedom of information in general and how it applies to your work and even your life.

SPJ pro and student chapters in your state:

SPJ's lengthy roster of chapters provide its backbone. The local chapter is the conduit SPJ members require to learn about events in their local journalism community as well as positions that journalists are taking nationwide on topics such as Freedom of Information and First Amendment rights. Locate, participate in and develop a chapter here.

Your Right To Federal records [publications.usa.gov]

A further explanation of the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act and how to use them.

SPJ eCampus: Acquiring Records

These video training sessions are available to all SPJ members at any time and are included as part of your SPJ membership.

10 Must-Have Documents
Learning FOI Law
Effective Requests
Overcoming Denials
Dealing with Data

Tell us what you think about this page

We want to know so we can make it better for you. Please contact the FOI committee with any questions or thoughts.

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