Press Freedom of Information - FAQs

Open records

How can I find out more about the open records act in my state?

In 2001, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press published the fourth edition of its “Tapping Officials’ Secrets,” a guide to each state’s open-meetings and open-records laws. Similar information can be found at the Web site of the Marion Brechner Citizens Access Project.

Must a federal agency produce records in an electronic format if asked to?

In line with 1996 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies must provide information in the format requested if the agency can readily produce the record in that format.

Does the public have access to documents such as water-quality, toxic-waste and bridge-safety reports?

The public has a great degree of access to water-quality reports thanks to the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has collected information on every public drinking water system in the United States and has it stored in a database called the Safe Drinking Water Information System. Most of the information in this database is made available to the public and can be seen on the EPA’s Web site.

The public also has a great degree of access to toxic-waste reports thanks to another EPA database called the Toxics Release Inventory, which contains information regarding toxic chemicals for communities across the nation.

Before the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in early August 2007, the public had a greater range of access to bridge-safety reports from local governments. Since then, however, the Department of Homeland Security has informed states that some of the information contained within the reports might be used by people who are planning to conduct terrorist or criminal acts related to bridges. Because of this, a majority of states still fill the public’s requests for bridge information but provide a lot less information than they had previously supplied.

Are states making court records available electronically for the public?

Many states have formed committees to propose initiatives and formulate policies regarding electronic access to court records. As a result of these committees’ findings, states have begun to implement procedures to allow for electronic access to court records. Most states have come to the conclusion, through committee studies, that the public should be able to access court records regardless of the medium in which they are stored.

However, states have realized that there are additional privacy concerns when dealing with electronic access to court records. Many states respond to this by allowing electronic access only to non-confidential court records, as long as certain types of sensitive, personal information are removed from the records. This would include Social Security, credit card and financial account numbers, etc. Most states have reached the conclusion that electronic access to court records should be provided in a way that is consistent with the fundamental right of public access to court records. States have further concluded that narrowly tailored exceptions to public access are acceptable as long as states do not make broad categorical limitations as to what the public can request. Almost all states will deny the public’s access to electronic records if the state has an interest in secrecy that outweighs the public’s right of access to a particular document.

Most states are actively working to integrate a multitude of court documents into the state’s official court Web site. For example, the Arkansas Judiciary Web site provides electronic access to docket information, state Supreme Court and appellate court decisions and court rules. The site is working to integrate court filings so that they will be available for public viewing. Another example of a state taking proactive measures regarding electronic access to court records is Texas. In addition to having a database of cases, there is a notification feature that allows an individual to sign up to receive information about changes to cases and the release of related case information.

Some state courts have gone even further by making digital audio recordings publicly of courtroom proceedings publicly available online. The U.S. District Court in Nebraska and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina were the first to make digital recordings publicly available on the Internet. Several more courts plan to join that movement in the coming months.