The Freedom of Information Act and its many amendments were designed to facilitate the release of government information to individuals, media outlets, and online publishers.
But despite its name, not all government information is freely available to the public. In fact, there are several exemptions that limit the amount and types of data the government is required to release.
In an attempt to balance the public's right to information with the privacy rights of individuals, FOIA Exemption 6 restricts the release of information that jeopardizes individual confidentiality. Specifically, Exemption 6 allows the government to refuse to release "personnel and medical files and similar files" when it is deemed that the information released "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Sound vague? It is . . . And that's what makes Exemption 6 such a tricky provision for journalists and online publishers to navigate. In general, here's what you need to know about Exemption 6 when you request information under the Freedom of Information Act.
- Personnel information. It's common sense that FOIA shouldn't allow the release of personnel file information for government employees, especially since private sector employees enjoy privacy protection for their individual employment information.
- Medical information. Like personnel information, individual medical information is protected from FOIA disclosure. With the passage of HIPAA and other legislation, medical privacy concerns have risen to the fore as a protected data category, including data that is obtained through FOIA.
- "Similar" information. "Similar" information is the big question mark in FOIA Exemption 6. The standard is that unreleased information must meet the requirement that it would constitute an "unwarranted" invasion of the individual's "personal privacy". The decision often comes down to the issue of whether the need for public disclosure outweighs the individual's need for privacy – and that can be thorny legal ground.
What Isn't Covered
- Requester information. The requester's personal information is automatically disqualified from Exemption 6. In other words, the government can't refuse to release the requester's personal information based on an Exemption 6 exclusion.
- Corporations. Corporations, businesses, and associations do not have privacy standing under FOIA. That means Exemption 6 is only applicable for individuals – not organizations.