What are US Public Record Laws? A Comprehensive Guide

Every state or territory in the United States has laws that address access to public records and open meetings. These laws, commonly referred to as public records disclosure laws, give the public the right to inspect almost any government record related to the conduct of the public's business. Similarly, these laws allow the public access to most of the meetings held by public bodies. This July 4th marks the 54th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act.

If you're reading this, you probably already know what a public record is. Whether you consider yourself a veteran of public records or someone who couldn't even come up with a simple definition of them, there's something in this post for anyone interested in learning about one of the pillars of government transparency. Let's start with the question: What is a public registry?What constitutes a public record is extensive and what is considered a public record is constantly evolving, especially as governments adopt new technologies, such as email, body cameras and text messages. The list of what is considered a public record is long and includes documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, court records, police reports, and more.

A public registry is also called differently in each state. For example, requests for public records may be referred to as Sunshine requests in states such as Florida, Louisiana and Missouri, open records requests in states such as North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, or names unique to a specific state, such as CPRA in California, CORA in Colorado, OPRA in New Jersey, PIA in Maryland, MGDPA in Minnesota, OPRL in Oregon, TPRA in Tennessee, TPIA in Texas, and GRAMA is in Utah. These names are often directly related to that state's specific public records law. Navigating through the complexities of public records requests is a developed skill set but there are many resources to help people get started. We found that the Harvard Law School Library has an excellent guide to finding public records.

Governments that have an open records portal or that use public records software tend to have a more transparent process about how to access information. One of our most transparent clients, the City of Albuquerque, publishes more than 80% of the records requests it receives. Published requests mean that information only needs to be requested once, saving the city time and making the information reach the applicant more quickly. Public records are not always free; charging a fee to produce a public record is a common practice and varies across the country. Some states have a list of state-level rates that governments must comply with while others don't have a list of fees to provide access to public records. Making a request as specific as possible helps the government agency understand exactly what you're looking for.

The open records organization MuckRock has examples of public records requests for each state so you don't have to start from scratch. Let's look at some of the most commonly used terms in public records laws and how different states use them. Taken from a protected registry and inserted into...

Rory Rabinovich
Rory Rabinovich

Hardcore beer fanatic. Avid zombie lover. Certified zombie aficionado. Infuriatingly humble social media scholar. Passionate pop culture buff.

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