6 Gray Areas of Public Records Law

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6 Gray Areas of Public Records Law

6 Gray Areas of Public Records Law

Justin Lavelle
December 27, 2018

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law primarily concerns public records held by federal agencies and does not necessarily create a right of access to records held by Congress, the courts, or state or local governments, though there are comparable state statutes, which nevertheless enable the various states to administer which of their public documents can be seen and which are protected.

It can be confusing when you’re looking for specific information that you might think should be matters of public record and, instead, you hit a legal roadblock. Depending on where you live or which state you’re petitioning for record access, these six gray areas of public records law may make it difficult for you to get what you need.

Vermont Lawmakers’ Emails Are Off-Limits

Public records can include email communications, but if those email accounts are personal, you’re out of luck — even if it’s a state official’s email. Government employees are required to use their government email addresses for business purposes only, but there’s no way to monitor whether they’re using personal email for business matters.

Louisiana Says No Minors Allowed

The only state that restricts public records by age is Louisiana. You have to be a legal adult to request and be granted access to public records. This could potentially impede, for example, the diligent efforts taken for a big school assignment by Louisiana high school students.

New York Limits Open Meeting Minutes Access

Open meeting laws are common in many states, so you can request meeting minutes of officials. While a handful of other states exempt open meeting minutes as part of public record, New York plays by its own rules. You can request agenda items and reports in New York, but specific minutes and email communications may be denied. Ultimately, you’re at the mercy of the particular records custodian, because New York lists specific documents that you can request, but doesn’t exempt open meetings outright.

Massachusetts Loves Exemptions

Of all the states in the U.S., Massachusetts may be the most secretive. This state includes about 70 government exemptions in their public records laws. So, you can file a public records request, but communications by the governor, legislative agendas, and far more may remain unseen by public eyes. It’s a holdover from a 1973 law, and it’s still in effect.

Florida’s Sunshine Law

Thanks to the 1995 “Sunshine Law” in the state of Florida, anyone can request public records, whether they’re emails, physical documents, meeting minutes, or photos that are considered official. Reasonable exemptions include names of victims and their addresses. Otherwise, almost anything is up for grabs. And if officials fail to respond to a request, the consequences could be expensive, as has been demonstrated after various public records lawsuits.

Oregon Needs Some Details

Oregon is perhaps the polar opposite of Florida when it comes to public records laws. While Florida is an open book with its Sunshine Law, Oregon officials want to know how you’ll use the information you’re seeking. In one case, a MuckRock user submitted his own request to the Portland Police Bureau and received a request from the PPB to answer three questions about how he planned to use the information to have the fee waived. Otherwise, he’d have to cough up $30 prepayment for his public records request.

This isn’t the only instance where requesting public records in Oregon has been an issue: Journalist Beth Slovic recently fought (and won) a two-year legal battle to gain access to some personnel records from the Portland public school system.

So, what can you as a citizen do with all these confusing laws in place? Start your public records search online, and then look into your state’s specific public records laws to see what to do next.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.