The Freedom of Information Act and its amendments opened the door to reams of government documents for both traditional and online media outlets.
But in releasing information for public consumption, the government also recognized a need to protect the privacy interests of individuals mentioned in federal documents.
The way FOIA protects sensitive data and individual privacy rights is through a series of exemptions. These exemptions give government agencies a basis for refusing to release government data, even if the requester has met all of the other requirements. Exemption 7 provides exclusions for information contained in law enforcement records. Specifically, Exemption 7c prohibits the release of law enforcement records that would result in a breach of personal privacy.
As you can guess, Exemption 7c is a hot button issue with many journalists because it precludes them from obtaining many of the names and details related to crimes and/or law enforcement activities. Although Exemption 7c can be a problem, it's possible to successfully navigate the process and access some of the information you need despite the exemption.
Exemption 7c Overview
Freedom of Information Act Exemption 7c is the law enforcement equivalent of Exemption 6. The difference is that it covers information and data collected by government law enforcement agencies rather than personnel, medical, or "similar" information. However, it shares the Exemption 6 concern for preventing the disclosure of information that could "reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Exemption 7c vs. Exemption 6
Much of the language used in Exemption 7c has been interpreted by the courts to mean that the government has more latitude in withholding information under Exemption 7c than they do under Exemption 6. The precise verbiage (e.g. intentional omission of words like "clearly") have translated into an understanding that law enforcement records have more privileged status than medical, personnel, or "similar" data.
- Freedom of Information Reform Act (1986)
The Freedom of Information Reform Act relaxed the standard that the government can apply to determine a threat of unwarranted personal privacy invasion. In the area of law enforcement records, federal agencies now have a greater ability to reject requests based on the need to protect individual privacy.