By Kenneth Kramer
The annual nationwide Sunshine Week is celebrated this year from March 15 to 21. USA newspapers publish stories about public records and the difficulty in obtaining some of them. “Public records” are generally defined as records regardless of their physical form (so email would be included), made or received in connection with the transaction of official business by any government agency.
This week, newspapers judge government agencies on their compliance with public records laws. They will publish their findings from experiments they have done, such as submitting the identical request for records to various agencies and evaluating the response from each.
Public records have an impact on a reporter’s paycheck because they form the backbone of many stories that newspapers sell. If you peruse any newspaper article, at least part of the article will probably be from a public record. Therefore, public records are very important to reporters. That’s the reason reporters cozy up to the PIOs (public information officers) at government agencies.
Agencies give reporters preferential treatment, and their requests for records are made a priority. You can’t blame an agency for wanting to look good to taxpayers on the front page, so they snap to attention, when a reporter calls. The power of the pen is undeniable.
Papers get uptight when legislators propose exemptions to public records laws as this limits access to information. So, many times, during legislative sessions, you will see this see-saw of legislators filing bills to limit access and papers hollering back to get the politicos to back off. (https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2015/03/04/sunshine-and-shadows-statehouses-tackle-open-records-laws-in-2015/)
The federal law governing public records is called the The Freedom of Information Act, but each state has their own laws, (www.foiadvocates.com/records.html) and there are quirks. In Rhode Island e-mail correspondence of their elected officials is not public. (http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/Statutes/title38/38-2/38-2-2.HTM)
The FBI won’t release records on a living person if they haven’t consented. (www.fbi.gov/foia/u.s.-department-of-justice-form-361-certification-of-identity). Certain criminal records are provided in Georgia, but only with the consent of the criminal. (www.gjp.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Red-Ink-State_Necessary-Revisions-to-Restore-the-Intent-of-Georgias-First-Offender-Act.pdf)
Reporters certainly don’t have the market cornered on public records. They are public records. They belong to you. The information contained in public records comes in many varieties, too many to mention briefly, but one example is discipline records from state licensing agencies on health-care providers. You can use this to check on your doctor before you accept his prescription. Other types of public records include lawsuits, criminal cases, marriage and divorce records, property records and the e-mails of your local bureaucrats and so on.
In many states, e-mails are public record. So, before you press “send” on your request for records, ask yourself: “Do I mind if this shows up on the front page of the New York Times?”
Most public agencies are polite and helpful and follow the law, and will give you your public records upon request. Some agencies have attorneys guarding the hen house who are reluctant to hand over records. Try finding online discipline records on a Mississippi psychiatrist. Luckily, this is rare, so just persist and you will eventually obtain the public records you seek.
If you are uncertain whether information is a public record, don’t worry about it, just ask for it. You may just get it. If not, it is the responsibility of the agency to inform you why your request was denied.
You may have to be patient. Usually you will get your records instantly, but the most extreme example I’ve run across is asking the Florida Medicaid Fraud Control Unit for criminal investigation records on a Florida psychiatrist — seven-and-a-half years ago. Still waiting. I do reiterate the request occasionally, about every six months now. I am told the records are not public because there is an ongoing criminal investigation.
Good luck in your search for public records. Happy Sunshine Week.
Kenneth Kramer is an expert on public records and is a Florida licensed private investigator.