Public Records Open To All


March 14, 2019

There seems to be a misperception among some people that state public records laws and the Freedom of Information Act apply to, or are important only to, journalists. While these laws are integral in helping news organizations provide news involving all levels of government, the laws apply to every citizen of this state and nation.

According to North Carolina statute 132-1, “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.”

What does it mean that these public records are “the property of the people”?

Again, according to statute 132-1, it means the people of North Carolina have legal access to “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina or its subdivisions.”

It means that “every public office, public officer or official (state or local, elected or appointed), institution, board, commission, bureau, council, department, authority or other unit of government of the state or of any county, unit, special district or other political subdivision of government” has to comply with the law, has to provide this information to the public whenever requested.

There are a few exceptions: discussion of personnel, legal proceedings, ongoing law enforcement investigations, etc. Most of these exceptions protect the privacy of government employees, maintain lawyer-client confidentiality or allow certain processes to be completed that otherwise would be destroyed or compromised if made public before any final decision or arrest is made.

Otherwise, all policy decisions, all regulatory decisions and all government communications and documents should be available to the public. In North Carolina, “the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law... ‘minimal cost’ shall mean the actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information.”

Unfortunately, at times government offices and officials at nearly all levels hesitate or refuse to release some of this public information because it could be embarrassing, controversial or politically damaging. In some cases, government officials may have acted unethically or illegally.

What steps should one follow in order to obtain this public information?

First, determine exactly what information you want. The more specific the request, the more likely the request will be honored and honored more quickly.

Second, know which agency has that information. If necessary, visit the agency’s website and call the agency’s information officer to see if that agency does, indeed, have the information you are seeking.

Finally, write a clear letter or email as to the specific information you are requesting. You do not have to give a reason why you are requesting the information or for what purpose you plan to use it. If there is an aerial photo of downtown Brevard and you want a copy of it to use as a dartboard, that is your prerogative. If a government employee or official asks why you want that information, you do not have to tell them. That public document belongs to you.

If you have any problems along the way in accessing what you believe should be public information, contact the North Carolina Open Government Coalition or the federal Freedom of Information Act website.

Most government employees and officials operate willingly within the scope of the law, particularly at the local level. State and federal agencies, however, sometimes seem less willing to accommodate such requests.

Do not be deterred. In our democracy, where we are supposed to have a government of, by and for the people, the overwhelming majority of public documents should be easily accessible to everyone, not just journalists.


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