The Rights of Requesters and the Responsibilities of George Mason University under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act
The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located at § 2.2-3700 et seq. of the Code of Virginia, guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth and representatives of the media access to public records held by public bodies, public officials, and public employees.
A public record is any writing or recording — regardless of whether it is a paper record, an electronic file, an audio or video recording, or any other format — that is prepared or owned by, or in the possession of a public body or its officers, employees or agents in the transaction of public business. All public records are presumed to be open, and may only be redacted or withheld if a specific, statutory exemption applies.
The policy of FOIA states that the purpose of FOIA is to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities. In furthering this policy, FOIA requires that the law be interpreted liberally, in favor of access, and that any exemption allowing public records to be redacted or withheld must be interpreted narrowly.
Your FOIA Rights
You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.
You have the right to request that any charges for the requested records be estimated in advance.
If you believe that your FOIA rights have been violated, you may file a petition in district or circuit court to compel compliance with FOIA.
Mason’s Responsibilities in Responding to Your Request
- George Mason University must respond to your request within five working days of receiving it. “Day One” is considered the day after your request is received. The five-day period does not include weekends or holidays.
- The reason behind your request for public records from George Mason University is irrelevant, and we cannot ask you why you want the records before we respond to your request. FOIA does, however, allow George Mason University to ask you to provide your name and legal address.
- FOIA requires that George Mason University make one of the following responses to your request within the five-day time period:
- We provide you with the records that you have requested in their entirety.
- We withhold all of the records that you have requested, because all of the records are subject to a specific statutory exemption. If all of the records are being withheld, we must send you a response in writing. That writing must identify the type and subject matter of the records being withheld, and state the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows us to withhold the records.
- We provide some of the records that you have requested, but withhold other records. We cannot withhold an entire record if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption. In that instance, we may redact the portion of the record that may be withheld, and must provide you with the remainder of the record. We must provide you with a written response stating the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld.
- If it is practically impossible for George Mason University to respond to your request within the five-day period, we must state this in writing, explaining the conditions that make the response impossible. This will allow us seven additional working days to respond to your request, giving us a total of 12 working days to respond to your request.
- If you make a request for a very large number of records, and we feel that we cannot provide the records to you within 12 days without disrupting our other organizational responsibilities, we may petition the court for additional time to respond to your request. However, FOIA requires that we make a reasonable effort to reach an agreement with you concerning the production or the records before we go to court to ask for more time.
- A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary, or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen as set forth in subsection F of § 2.2-3704 of the Code of Virginia.
- In plain language, the above paragraph means: You may have to pay for the records that you request from George Mason University. FOIA allows us to charge for the actual costs of responding to FOIA requests. This would include items like staff time spent searching for the requested records, copying costs, or any other costs directly related to supplying the requested records. It cannot include general overhead costs. You may request that we estimate in advance the charges for supplying the records that you have requested. This will allow you to know about any costs upfront, or give you the opportunity to modify your request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs.
- If we estimate that it will cost more than $200 to respond to your request, we may require you to pay a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with your request. The five days that we have to respond to your request does not include the time between when we ask for a deposit and when you respond.
- If you owe us money from a previous FOIA request that has remained unpaid for more than 30 days, George Mason University may require payment of the past-due bill before it will respond to your new FOIA request.
Types of Public Records Maintained by George Mason University
George Mason University maintains many different types of public records, including: scholastic records; records related to research; personnel records; contracts; law enforcement records; correspondence created in the course of public business; etc.
Commonly Used Exemptions
The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure. George Mason University commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:
- Scholastic records (under the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, and §2.2-3704.4 (1) of the Code of Virginia).
- Letters and statements of recommendation (§2.2-3705.4. (2) of the Code of Virginia)
- Propriety information produced by faculty and staff in the conduct of scholarly research (§2.2-3705.4 (3) of the Code of Virginia).
- Personnel records (§ 2.2-3705.1 (1) of the Code of Virginia).
- Any test or examination evaluating a student’s performance, an applicant or employee’s qualification for employment, retention or promotion, or qualification for a license or certificate (§2.2-3705.1 (4) of the Code of Virginia).
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege (§ 2.2-3705.1 (2) of the Code of Virginia) or attorney work product (§ 2.2-3705.1 (3) of the Code of Virginia).
- Vendor proprietary information software (§ 2.2-3705.1 (6) of the Code of Virginia).
- Computer software developed for George Mason University (§2.2-3705.1 (7) of the Code of Virginia).
- Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (§ 2.2-3705.1 (12) of the Code of Virginia).
- Working papers and correspondence of the President of George Mason University (§2.2-3705.7 (2) of the Code of Virginia).
- Certain law enforcement records in the custody of the George Mason University Police Department (§2.2-3706 of the Code of Virginia).
George Mason University Policy 1117: Responding to Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests for Records is the University Policy that governs Mason’s response to Virginia FOIA requests.
Last Updated: July 1, 2016