This week is Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of access of public information.
Public records are very serious business for newspapers because they form the backbone of most newspaper stories. Newspapers are the loudest ones screaming when legislators have the gall to attempt limiting public records. A reporter’s paycheck may depend on how well he can dig up stories using public records.
Although governments usually give special treatment to journalists, you, as a citizen, have just as much right to access these records. If you don’t know whether a record is public or not, just ask for it. It is the responsibility of the government to respond with the exact statute if they deny you. This makes it easy for you to look up the law.
When you’re reading this newspaper today, I bet you can find at least one piece of information a reporter got from a government agency.
The term FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) is an acronym commonly used when describing the activity of accessing records from government agencies. But each state has a name for their own public records law.
“Public records” generally are defined as records, regardless of their physical form, made or received in connection with official government business. “Regardless of physical form” means that public records come in various forms, not just paper records. They can also be electronic, such as e-mail or data stored on government computers. They can also be photos, video or audio.
So, the e-mails of your mayor, a mugshot, video from a police dashcam, audio from a court hearing, the deed on your neighbor’s property and their water usage may all be public records. Using your public records law, you can check out a health care provider. Just go to medical licensing board and request discipline reports on a doctor. You can find out if a psychiatrist was ever disciplined for sexual misconduct, substance abuse or has a record of overdrugging children. You can find out if a doctor has done any wrong-side surgery or a dentist has improperly done an extraction which resulted in complications.
If you request enough public records, you will see the free flow of information from government agencies. You get into a rhythm: You ask, you receive, back and forth, on and on and things are sailing along smoothly, and then “Clunk!” The machine stops! Some attorney, trained to stop the flow and prevent access to records or some recalcitrant government worker or some state statute or agency “policy” slams the door shut! “Request Denied!” But don’t let that stop you!
Just Google the statute they gave you in denying the records. Are they right or not? If not, ask them once again for the record and quote the statute.
There is a a wide variation in public record laws since each state has its own statutes.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill last year allowing criminal records to be sealed if an ex-offender stayed out of trouble for 10 years. New York divorce records are closed, but California’s are open. Florida prohibited autopsy photos following the NASCAR crash death of Dale Earnhardt. The FBI won’t release a record unless the subject of the records request has filled out a form or if the subject has died. (Plus they take forever in responding!)
Public records are your records. They are public. Governments are simply the custodians of the records.
Good luck on your search of public records!
Happy Sunshine Week!
Kenneth Kramer is a private investigator and public records expert. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.