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The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), located in § 2.2-3700, et seq., of the Code of Virginia, provides to citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia and representatives of the media with circulation in or broadcasting into the Commonwealth the right to access public records of public bodies, public officials and public employees, subject to certain exemptions identified in FOIA.
A public record is any writing or recording — regardless of form (e.g., 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. Public records are presumed to be open and may be withheld only if a specific statutory exemption applies.
The stated purpose of FOIA is to promote an increased awareness of governmental activities. In furtherance of this policy, FOIA requires that the law be interpreted liberally, in favor of access, and that any exemption from access must be interpreted narrowly.
Making a request for records from VCU
Requests for access to records may be made by U.S. mail, fax, email, in person or over the phone. FOIA does not require that a request be in writing or that FOIA be specifically referenced in the request.
- It is generally helpful to both the requester and the person at VCU receiving the request for it to be made in writing. This creates a record of the request and helps to provide a clear statement of the records being requested to avoid misunderstanding over a verbal request. However, VCU will respond to your FOIA request even if you elect to not put it in writing.
- Requests must identify the records that are being sought with “reasonable specificity.” This is a common-sense standard. It does not refer to or limit the volume or number of records that are being requested; instead, it requires that requests be specific enough to allow VCU to identify and locate the records that are being sought.
- FOIA requests must seek access to existing records or documents. FOIA does not require the following: production of information that is not in existing records or documents, answering general questions about the work of the university, or the creation of records that do not already exist.
- Requesters may choose to receive electronic records in any format used by VCU in the regular course of business.
- For example, if the requested records are maintained in an Excel database, one may elect to receive those records electronically, via email or on a CD, or to receive a printed copy of those records.
Making a FOIA request is not an adversarial process, but it may be necessary to discuss a particular request to ensure that the nature and scope of the request is fully understood. Cooperation with staff efforts to clarify the type of records that are being sought or to attempt to reach a reasonable agreement on a response to a request for a large volume of records is strongly encouraged.
If you require accommodation in making a FOIA request, please contact University Public Affairs at (804) 828-1231 or the ADA Coordinator with Equity and Access Services at (804) 828-1347 for help.
VCU’s responsibilities in responding to a FOIA request
VCU 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 for the request for public records is irrelevant and need not be identified before the university responds to your request. However, FOIA does allow VCU to require the requesting individual to provide his/her name and legal address and to seek clarification of any request.
FOIA requires that VCU make one of the following responses to your request within the five-day time period:
- 1. Provide the records that have been requested in their entirety.
- 2. Withhold all of the requested records because all of the records are subject to specific statutory exemptions. If all of the records are being withheld, a written response must be provided that identifies the volume and subject matter of the records being withheld as well as the specific section of the Code of Virginia that permits withholding.
- 3. Provide some of the requested records and withhold others. An entire record may not be withheld if only a portion of it is subject to an exemption. In that instance, the protected portion of the record may be redacted and the remainder of the record will be supplied. A written response citing the specific section of the Code of Virginia that allows portions of the requested records to be withheld will be provided.
- 4. Inform you in writing that the requested records cannot be found or do not exist. (VCU does not have the records you want.) However, if VCU knows that another public body has the requested records, it must include contact information for the other public body in its response.
- 5. If it is practically impossible for VCU to respond to a FOIA request within the five-day period, a written response to this effect must be provided, in which case, FOIA permits seven additional working days to respond to the request.
If a large volume of records is requested, or, if other circumstances would render it difficult or impossible to provide the requested records within 12 working days without disrupting the university’s other organizational responsibilities, FOIA requires that a reasonable effort be made to reach an agreement concerning the production of the records. If an agreement cannot be reached, it may be necessary for VCU to seek permission for additional response time through the courts.
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. Requesting an estimate allows the requester to know about any costs in advance and can provide an opportunity to modify a request in an attempt to lower the estimated costs.
If the cost to fulfill the request is estimated to be more than $200, the university may require a deposit, not to exceed the amount of the estimate, before proceeding with your request. The five days allowed for response does not include the time between when the university asks for a deposit and when you respond.
An estimate is just that – an estimate. Actual costs may be greater or lesser than the estimated amount. In which case, VCU will refund any overage paid or will provide an invoice for any balance due. If there is an outstanding balance owed to VCU from a previous FOIA request for more than 30 days, VCU may require payment of the past-due invoice before it will respond to a new FOIA request from the same individual.
Types of records maintained by VCU*
- Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable
- Admission and Enrollment
- Athletic, including required NCAA records
- Board of Visitors reports and meeting minutes
- Capital Project
- Emergency Operations Plan
- Grant or Contract Research
- Parking / Transportation
- Risk Management
- Workers’ Compensation
*This list is intended as a guide and is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all records maintained by VCU.
Commonly invoked exceptions
The Code of Virginia allows public bodies to withhold certain records from public disclosure. VCU commonly withholds records subject to the following exemptions:
- Personnel information [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.1(1) of the Code of Virginia]
- Records subject to attorney-client privilege [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.1(2)] or attorney work product [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.1(3)]
- Vendor proprietary information [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.1(6)]
- Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.1(12)]
- Scholastic records [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.4(1)]]
- Presidential working papers [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.7(2)]
- Records pertaining to administrative investigations [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.3]
- Records of a proprietary nature produced by faculty or staff in the conduct of research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues [Code of Virginia §2.2-3705.4(4)]
- Health and public safety and social service records [Code of Virginia §§ 2.2-3705.2 and 2.2-3705.5]
Policy regarding the use of exemptions
The general policy of VCU is to invoke the above-listed exemptions in those instances where they apply to protect the privacy of its employees and students and confidentiality of certain types of records meriting such protection under FOIA.
VCU faculty/staff responsibilities upon receipt of FOIA request
A department or individual that receives a FOIA request should do the following:
- Date stamp the request if in writing.
- If made verbally, write down your understanding of the request noting the date received along with the requester’s contact information including, at a minimum, name and legal mailing address. If the request was made by phone, please include the requester’s telephone number.
- Whether written or verbal, immediately notify the FOIA Officer by emailing FOIAVCU@vcu.edu or by calling (804) 827-3909 providing the information supplied by the requester. If you do not get a response confirming receipt within 24 hours, please notify University Public Affairs at (804) 828-1231 and the Office of the University Counsel at (804) 828-6610.
- The FOIA Officer will work with you to provide an appropriate response within five working days including whether or not the requested records qualify for an exemption.