What is a public record?

Public records can be your direct line to the government. Learn what you can and can’t request.

Written by Beryl Lipton

Government records are public records, the people’s records, because it’s the law.

Since 1966, the Freedom of Information Act has protected the right of the American people to access government information. Since then, legislatures have passed state public records laws in all fifty U.S. states, each with the ideal intentions of allowing citizens oversight of their government. We live in a country founded on “We the people,” and public records and public records laws cement our right to know just what’s being done with our collective tax dollars.

The concept sounds fine, but why would just anyone want to get access to government records? Aren’t there some things we shouldn’t be able to see? And what would you even ask for?

Public records come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and file types. You’d be surprised by what you can get - and what you can’t.

What makes a record public

The federal FOIA and state public records laws start from the assumption that how the government conducts itself is the people’s business. They operate on the belief that every action executed and every artifact created belongs to the people. Each state has a public records definition it works with, and usually the definition of “public records” is expanded to encompass almost everything a government worker or government dollars touch.

Everything covers a lot of stuff.

After-action reports
Agendas
Algorithms
Audio
Books
Cables
Calendars
Commissioned artwork
Construction plans
Contractor agreements
Contracts
Course materials
Court records
Curriculums
Directives
E-mails
FBI files
Grant applications
Inspection reports
Investigatory files
Lesson plans
Letters
Manuals
Maps
Meeting minutes
Memorandums
Metadata
Military records
Notes
Papers
Permits
Photographs
Policies
Receipts
Recorded Tapes
Reports
Statistics
Surveillance footage
Talking Points
Video

Some public records laws include all three branches of government. Some exclude the legislature - like the federal FOIA - and others exclude the governor, but might provide you with materials anyway.

Usually all of the offices of the executive branch must respond to public records requests.

Reasons to request a public record

With government affecting every aspect of public life, there are so many reasons to make a public records request and so many records the government has to release.

For example you can ask for …

The list of parades scheduled for your street

The contract your state has with a vendor, with details of the agreement

The incident report for a police altercation

The purchase of new surveillance equipment

The names of every dog in your town

FBI files of your favorite dead celeb

Accident reports for a particular address

An agency’s policies on just about anything

Recipes from the CIA.

How to ask for a public record

So you have a bit of information you want to retrieve from some government office. How do you write a good public records request?

It’s best to submit your request in writing: email, fax, regular letter. Cite the law, be specific about what you’re looking for, and ask for a fee waiver, if that’s something you qualify for.

MuckRock has examples of requests in every state that can serve as a guide to writing your own public records request.

The cost of public records

Public records are not always free. Depending on the state law, agencies can charge for copies and search time. At the federal level, requesters fall into three categories:

  • Commercial requesters
  • Media requesters/educational requesters
  • All-other/individual requesters

Commercial requesters are expected to cover all fees. Media requesters, if they qualify, are exempted from fees, but they must still reasonably describe the records. All-other requesters are entitled to two free hours of search time and the first 100 pages.

Which government records aren’t public

Laws vary from state-to-state, but there are a few categories that usually warrant pushback from the agency.

Drafts - There’s the expectation that a certain amount of privacy is necessary to debate and hammer out ideas. For this reason, some working drafts are withheld before the final product is complete.

National security - If there is a chance that the release would produce information crucial to our national security, agencies have the right to redact it. However, agencies have taken to overusing this reason.

Personal records/attorney-client privilege - Personal information or materials that are protected under attorney-client privilege laws aren’t releasable. Certain investigatory files become public record after the subject has passed away.

Law enforcement techniques - As with national security exemptions, certain law enforcement operations are exempt, though this

Trade secrets - Certain proprietary details qualify for exemptions.

You can read our guide to exemptions at the federal level here.

Have more questions about which records you can request? Let us know at info@muckrock.com, on Twitter, or on Slack.


Image via National Archives Flickr