Requesting copies of public records

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Submitting a public records request gives citizens access to information. This article is dedicated to assisting an individual in submitting a records request. For more information, see state specific requirements for requesting records.

Procedures

  1. Begin by drafting a public records request. You can do this in two ways: one, write a professional letter stating that you are seeking public records and then list the records you seek. Two, use a FOI letter generator like the Student Press Law Center form.
    1. By drafting the letter at the beginning of the process, you are able to focus on the questions you seek to answer through your request and on the specific items you seek.
    2. When listing the records you seek, be specific in terms of time frame and record type. For example, you do not want "the last five years" of data, you want data from January 1, 2007-January 1, 2013.
  2. Contact the public body from which you seek records. You can find phone numbers and e-mail addresses on the website of the public body.
  3. Find the FOI liaison. Figure out what person or department deals with public records requests.
    1. When finding this person, the public body may refer to them as a FOI or FOIA contact or a public/open records person.
    2. If you are having trouble finding a contact, get in touch with departments that deal with the public and information management. This includes Recorders, Clerks, External Affairs, Communication Departments, and Main Offices.
    3. When you get a FOI liaison on the phone, let them know you want to submit a public records request. Ask them where you can submit your request--e-mail is preferable because of ease of communication and the automatic electronic paper trail.
    4. Sometimes at this step, you can let the FOI liaison know what records you seek and they may be available without having to submit a public records request.
    5. Ask the FOI contact what the next step in the process is. Get this person's contact information and save it.
  4. Review your request and submit your request following the FOI liaison's instructions.
  5. Stay in communication with the FOI liaison. States allow public bodies between 2-20 days to answer public records requests so some delay in communication is to be expected.
  6. Once you receive your request, review it and ask any final questions you have to the FOI liaison or any other official with whom you have been in touch.

Do I need an attorney?

There is no state in which you are required to seek the assistance of an attorney in order to file an open records request. Many citizens file open records requests routinely and successfully without ever consulting an attorney. In addition to the information provided here and our analysis of the various state sunshine laws, there are a number of other resources on the web for individuals who wish to submit an open records request on their own. The Student Press Law Center makes available a tool called the Fully Automated, Fill-in-the-Blanks State Open Records Law Request Letter Generator that allows anyone to fill out a few blanks and generate a professional letter that cites the correct law in the state where you'll be requesting information. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also provides an easy-to-understand but thorough explanation of each state's open records laws in their Open Government Guide.

See our Legal Disclaimer.

Here are some reasons why you might want to hire an attorney to assist you with your open records request:

What person or agency receives my request?

Since this Wiki is about open records requests at the state and local level, our first assumption is that you are looking for documents that relate to a state or local agency.

You might want information from:

How should I send my request?

You have a number of choices about how to deliver your request. You can:

  • Send it by regular first-class mail.
  • Send it by certified mail.
  • Send it by fax.
  • Send it by email.
  • Deliver it in person.

If you believe that the agency from whom you plan to request records might later deny ever getting your request, your two safest bets are to deliver it in person or send it by certified mail. But, both of those options take a lot of your time and energy. Unless there's some pressing reason why you must be able to definitively establish that the agency received the request, it's easier to:

  • Send it by regular first-class mail.

Or, if you can obtain the email address for the records custodian,

  • Send it by email.

These options are quick and inexpensive. If the agency does not acknowledge your request or give you the documents you've requested by the deadline mandated in your state's laws, you can always call the agency and ask what happened. If they deny ever receiving the request, at that time you can re-file using a filing format that allows you to record that the request was received.

How broad or narrow should the request be?

The main question to think about here is how broad or narrow your request should be. Should you ask just for paper records or just for electronic documents (copies of emails and other electronically received and archived documents such as faxes)?

What period of time should your request cover? Consider:

  • all school district budgets for the last twenty years
  • Mr. Snicket's outgoing and incoming emails for March 26-27, 2005
  • any emails sent or received by the members of the city council in December 2006 about the proposed Gladstone annexation

What subjects should your request cover?

  • if you are asking for email records, do you want to specify that the search be conducted for specific, named search terms or do you want the agency to search for those search terms "and related search terms" or search terms "pertaining to" the named subjects?
  • "While the request should be broad enough to encompass all records that you seek, a request without reasonable subject matter and/or time limitations may be denied as overly broad. Excessively broad requests can also lead to substantial charges for locating and copying records." Godfrey & Kahn, S.C.
  • The above was written specifically in terms of Wisconsin law, but the idea is applicable everywhere. You want your request(s) to be specific enough that people know what you're talking about, but not so specific that a records custodian might not include applicable items just because you only asked for one document.
  • Note that if your request can be construed as overly broad either in the search terms you specify or in the period of time you specify, it may be denied or delayed on those grounds. Alternatively, the broadness of your request may result in a demand for exorbitant fees.

Experienced guidance from others who have gone through this can be of great help at this stage. Please email us or contact Geoff Pallay. We are working with FOIAers in many states and can probably connect you with someone in your state who can help.

What is the best way to describe what I am looking for?

Our suggestions:

  • Take a look at the templates section for some ideas or add your own.
  • Consult the Open Records letter generator generously provided by the Student Press Law Center. We use it all the time because it gives you the legal language for the state in question, and includes a response time based on the laws of the state in which you're filing your request.
  • You still have to figure out what words to use to describe the documents you want, and that's not always easy.

Here are some hypothetical examples.

Let's say you wonder if your public school district sends its administrators on expense-account-paid trips to conferences. However, you don't know the names of any such conferences and you don't know which administrators might be reimbursed to attend. Here, you could frame your request as:

  • "I'd like copies of the administrative staff's expense account reimbursement requests for attending conferences and workshops in 2007. By 'administrative staff', I mean the superintendent and other administrative personnel."

You could also ask for copies of any conference brochures or descriptions for conferences attended by administrative personnel (although these might not be available)

Let's say you wonder if your city used a competitive bidding process when it entered into a contract for the new carpet in the mayor's office. Here, you could frame your request as:

  • "I'd like copies of any bid documents, requests for proposals, and executed contracts pertaining to the new carpeting installed in the Mayor's office on or around July 2006."

If the answer to your request is, "We couldn't find any documents matching your request," you could consider a second request as follows:

  • "I'd like copies of any emails sent by or received by anyone in the Mayor's office in the three-month period from May-July 2006 pertaining to the Ultradeluxe Carpet Company."

What form do I want the documents in and where should they send them?

The basic options are:

  • Email
  • Fax
  • Paper copy
  • Some form of electronic storage, such as a CD-ROM or an electronic file sent as an email attachment

In your letter asking for the documents, we suggest that you provide the agency with more than one way of filling the request. Example:

  • "If you'd prefer to email me the documents, my email address is ____________________. If you'd prefer to mail me paper copies of the document, my address is _______."

Legally, most states do not have to give you a document in a different form than the form in which they maintain it. For example, if a school district has a copy of school board meeting minutes from August 1998 on paper stashed away in a file drawer, they are under no obligation to scan that into a computer file and send it to you as an email attachment or through the mail on a CD-ROM. Or, if the only form in which the document exists is electronically, they are not generally not required to make a paper copy and mail that to you if they decide they'd rather forward the email to your email address.

As with other complex areas of open records requests, we urge you to ask us if you are unsure about how to proceed.

More advanced questions

State specific requirements and recommendations

External links