Fifty states means 50 public records laws with varying statutes, issues, and ambiguities. With a growing need to address discrepancies within the law, advocates have taken center stage in leading the charge for transparency. Through traditional advocacy, legal relief, and reporting, requesters have taken the public records battle by the horns.
State advocates played a pivotal part in the 2016 Massachusetts records reform movement. Massachusetts legislatures passed House Bill 2772, An Act to Improve Public Records. Transparency advocates were sure to voice their support for the bill along the way through petitions, attending public hearings, and engaging with state lawmakers . However, as we mentioned earlier, one of the major changes requesters petitioned for was the removal of a long-standing exemption of records at the state’s highest level of government, the Judiciary, the Legislature, and the Governor’s office, which didn’t happen and still poses issues in access.
These types of partial victories in records advocacy are often more common than not, as lawmakers remain hesitant to reform key aspects of access. But in states like Kentucky where records law has gone untouched since day one, requesters fear that addressing issues within the law could lead to negative change. In the Bluegrass State, the Attorney General ruled last year that emailed records requests aren’t statutorily valid since the state’s records law does not list email as a way to submit a request. State advocates say that 90% of agencies in Kentucky accept emailed requests, but the ambiguity within the law legally allows agencies to reject emailed requests. However, no plans have been made to change that aspect of the and legal experts say they have “legislative concerns that could enact adverse action to access to records.”
UPDATE: After publication, reporter Louisville-based reporter Marcus Green contacted MuckRock and pointed out that earlier this year, Governor Matt Bevin signed into law SB 230, which amended the Kentucky Open Records Act to include email and faxed requests.
Even with opposition to public records reforms, requesters have been able to find success by applying pressure to unfair records decisions. This year, a Louisiana judge ruled in favor of The New Orleans Advocate calling for the release of the State Police’s body-camera footage involving an off-duty police officer who was stopped for speeding. The case was a big win in access to body-camera footage as Louisiana recently instated its body-worn camera law two years prior. Advocacy groups like the Public Affairs Council of Louisiana, rallied in favor of the release of footage and celebrated the win. Although the state’s first body-camera case, the Council fears the ruling could embolden law enforcement agencies to wait until a court ruling to release this type of record.
In similar fashion, a local television station in Georgia applied pressure to a delayed records response resulting in both the release of records and possible jail time for a public employee. WSB-TV reported on the delayed records requests for the former Atlanta Mayor’s water bill which then led to the release of a controversial text exchange. The text messages showed the Mayor’s press secretary explicitly asking another public employee to delay the request. The matter was widely reported in the state as a public records violation. The State Attorney caught wind of the situation and asked for a state investigation into the matter. As a result, the Mayor’s press secretary faced two criminal charges in Georgia for violating the records act and directing another public employee to withhold records.
Even in instances were a record violation wasn’t the main issue, advocacy groups have been key in highlighting legislative concerns to access. Most recently, bills in California and Washington state have failed due to widespread opposition. Even our own State of State Public Records law project has provided a platform in which issues to access are emphasized.
Image via Joint Base San Antonio