Since the founding of the UW Center for Human Rights in 2009, upholding access to information as a human right has emerged as a shared goal of various Center projects. Our researchers use laws including the U.S. federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, as well as state public records laws, to uncover documentation related to historic and contemporary human rights concerns. We aim to make this information more accessible to a broad audience, including those directly impacted by government policy. In order to help other researchers access this important tool, UW Ph.D. Candidate and resident freedom of information expert Emily Willard has published a free online version of the UWCHR’s FOIA training manual. Browse and download this training manual via the UW Libraries and read more from Emily about her interest in access to information as a human right below.
In 2019, the UWCHR celebrated its 10th anniversary. As a part of the celebration, I facilitated a public FOIA training workshop, and rewrote the training manual to be relevant to a wider audience looking to do public interest research. I felt strongly about creating an opportunity for anyone who wanted to learn to use the FOIA would have the basic skills to use this important tool of democracy and government oversight. After the training seminar, I further edited the training manual to be a stand-alone from the event. Emily Keller and I worked together at the University of Washington Libraries to publish the manual through PressBooks so that it could be permanently and freely available to the public.
The 1966 FOIA law gives all people the right to request information, however it is a highly technical process with a big learning curve. I wanted to break it down in the most simple steps so anyone could apply it to any type of research related to public interest, and thereby doing a public service. I imagine that FOIA can be applied and support work on topics such as the following: Indigenous and Native American Indian rights such as issues of treaties, sovereignty, and boarding schools, as well as others; environmental rights and concerns; public health; animal rights; nuclear non-proliferation work; first amendment rights, and civil rights and liberties; criminal justice reform; various topics of U.S. foreign policy and history; and many more.
The FOIA only works if people use it. The idea with publishing this guide is that people can learn, and then teach other people. When I train the interns and students at the CHR, my goal is for them to acquire skills to use this research tool, and then can carry it on with them to whatever work they do in the future, and teach their colleagues and own communities how to use it, creating a ripple effect.
I believe access to information is a human right, and I also believe it is the responsibility of people living in the U.S. (citizens and non-citizens) to hold the U.S. government accountable for its actions. Using the FOIA is an important tool. By making this manual available free to the public, it is my hope that more people will have more access to information. My goal would be that people could take this guide to the basics and adapt it to their own work, and share it with colleagues in their network. As was an integral part of the very first version of this training guide, it is meant to be a living document that evolves and improves as we learn how to better use this tool. I am hoping that we can continue to learn from each other and would be eager to hear about the ways that you are using the FOIA in your work, and the lessons you learn.