The Providence Journal
R.I. Shields Emails From Public
March 13, 2015
By Ken Kramer
It is the annual Sunshine Week, when U.S. 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, many newspapers will judge government agencies on their compliance with public records laws. They will publish the findings of 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, in part 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 tend to cozy up to the PIOs (public information officers) at government agencies.
Agencies tend to 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, during legislative sessions, you will often see a see-saw of legislators filing bills to limit access and papers hollering back to get the politicos to back off.
The federal law governing public records is called the The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but each state has its own laws, and there are quirks.
In Rhode Island, email correspondence of elected officials is not public (See webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/statutes/title38/38-2/38-2-2.htm).
The Federal Bureau of Investigation won’t release records on a living person if he or she hasn’t consented.
Certain criminal records are provided in Georgia – but only with the consent of the criminal (See 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 emails of your local bureaucrats (except in Rhode Island) 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?”
Many public agencies are polite and helpful and follow the law, and will give you your public records upon request. Some agencies have lawyers 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.
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.