Pennsylvania Right to Know Law

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The Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law, is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies in Pennsylvania (Sunshine Review).

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act legislates the methods by which public meetings are conducted.

Prior to 2008, the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act was widely regarded as one of the worst in the country, partly because the pre-2008 law presumed that government records were not public, unless someone who wanted the record could establish otherwise. A new law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Ed Rendell "flipped the presumption". This new law went into full effect on January 1, 2009 and it states, in sharp distinction to the previous law, that all documents will be presumed to be open to the public unless the agency holding them can prove otherwise.

To learn more about how to make a public records request in this state, please see: Pennsylvania FOIA procedures

Recent news

See also: Pennsylvania transparency headlines

Transparency blocking
No recent news.

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Sunshine Guardians
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Relevant legal cases

See also: Court cases with an impact on state FOIA

Here is a list of lawsuits in Pennsylvania. For more information go the page or go to Pennsylvania sunshine lawsuits.
(The cases are listed alphabetically. To order them by year please click the icon to the right of the Year heading)

Lawsuit Year
Harristown Development Corporation v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 1992
Judge v. Pocius 1977
Pennsylvania State Police v. Office of Open Records 2010
Pocono Record v. ESU Foundation 2010

Proposed changes


See also:Proposed reforms in state sunshine laws, 2011

We do not have any legislation for Pennsylvania in 2011.


See also:Proposed reforms in state sunshine laws, 2010

We do not have any legislation for Pennsylvania in 2010.


Main article: Proposed reforms in state sunshine laws, 2009

Transparency report card

A 2008 study, BGA - Alper Integrity Index, conducted by the Better Government Association and sponsored by Alper Services, ranked Pennsylvania #25 in the nation with an overall percentage of 52.00%. [1]

A 2007 study, Graded state responsiveness to FOI requests, conducted by BGA and the NFOIC, gave Pennsylvania 53 points out of a possible 100, a letter grade of "F", and a ranking of 22 out of the 50 states.[2]

A 2002 study, Freedom of Information in the USA, conducted by IRE and BGA, ranked Pennsylvania's law as the 48th worst in the country, giving it a letter grade of "F".[3]

Features of the law

Sunshine variations Compare States: Sunshine variations
Click on the heading to compare your state's law to other state's transparency laws.

=== Declared legal intention=== The new law that went into effect on January 1, 2009 stated, "Unless otherwise provided by law, a public record shall be accessible for inspection and duplication by a requester in accordance with this act." [4]

=== What records are covered?=== Pennsylvania law defines records as, "Information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that documents a transaction or activity of an agency and that is created, received or retained pursuant to law or in connection with a transaction, business or activity of the agency." [5]


See EXEMPTIONS: What you can’t have from the Youngstown Vindicator, November 16, 2008 and Pa. Right-to-Know law contains 30 exceptions from the York Daily Record, December 22, 2008.

==== Deliberative process====

=== What agencies are covered?=== Pennsylvania law explicitly includes all branches of government at both the state and local level. [6]

==== Legislature====


The legislature falls under the definition of public body found atPennsylvania Chapter 3 and is subject to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law.

==== Privatized governmental agencies==== Under Pennsylvania law, private entities which were created by a public body and perform a public function are considered public bodies and subject to the Right to Know Law.[7]

==== Public universities====

Status: Explicitly exempt[8]
Popular Exemptions
ResearchDonorsExaminationsCourse Materials

Certain universities within Pennsylvania fall under the definition of "State-related institution" which is explicitly not included in the definition of "Commonwealth agency" that defines which entities are subject to the law. These include:

(1) Temple University.

(2) The University of Pittsburgh.
(3) The Pennsylvania State University.
(4) Lincoln University.

Instead, these universities are required to submit an annual report to the government detailing tax information as well as salaries for employees. Other state departments of higher education and community college are included in the law.[9] In 2013, a bill passed the Pennsylvania House that would close this exemption.[10]

=== Who may request records?=== Any United States citizen may request public records in Pennsylvania. The law explicitly defines "Requester" as "a person that is a legal resident of the United States and requests a record pursuant to this act. The term includes an agency." [11] [12]

Impact of Lee v. Minner

In 2006, a federal appeals court (the Third Circuit) in the case Lee v. Minner rejected the constitutionality of Delaware's law that disallowed non-residents from making public record requests.

The Third Circuit's rulings apply to Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and any other state who permits access to only state citizens. As a result, the provision in the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law that prohibits non-residents from access to records is likely to be considered invalid.

=== Must a purpose be stated?=== Pennsylvania law does not require a statement of purpose, and further, explicitly prohibits the creation of a requirement of a statement of purpose. [13]

=== How can records be used?=== There is not restriction on the use of records, nor can records be denied based on intended use. [14]

=== Time allowed for response===

5 days

Effective in 2009, "The time for response shall not exceed five business days from the date the written request is received by the open-records officer for an agency. If the agency fails to send the response within five business days of receipt of the written request for access, the written request for access shall be deemed denied."[15]

The government agency may determine that:

  • The requested records require some redaction.
  • The records are stored in a remote location so that retrieval will take some time.
  • Staffing limitations exist.
  • The agency is uncertain as to whether it is required under the law to provide the records that have been requested and therefore wants to request a legal review prior to making a decision as to whether to fulfill the request.
  • The requestor did not adequately comply with the policies regarding how to ask for records.
  • The requestor did not pay the fees associated with the request.
  • The "extent or nature of the request precludes a response within the required time period"

If the agency decides that one or more of those reasons for not providing the records within the 5-day window apply, the agency is required to provide the requestor with a letter saying why it is going to take more than 5 days. That letter must be provided within the 5 day window.

Fees for records

==== Copy costs:==== In general, the fee structure proposed by Terry Mutchler of the OOR allows for a copying fee of $0.25 per page for executive, county, municipal and school district records. The judicial branch currently charges $1.00 per page for copies and the legislative branch charges $0.50 per page. [16]

==== Search fees:====


In November 2008 Gov. Ed Rendell's office released a directive that allows states agencies to charge "a reasonable fee" for searching and retrieving documents. The directive also allows agencies to charge for redacting nonpublic information from copies of requested government documents.

The directive is controversial because the state's Office of Open Records--which was charged in 2008 with coming up with guidelines to govern how the state's new law would be implemented--says that fees should not be charged for retrieval or redaction.[17]

The director of the OOR says the office is engaging in discussions with the Rendell administration about the new directive because the OOR believes that "When you have a fee structure that allows agencies to charge for the cost of labor, it opens the door to abuse."

=== Records commissions and ombudsmen:=== A Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) was established in 2008 to assist citizens when they have trouble accessing public documents. Terry Mutchler is the director of the office.

=== Role of the Attorney General===

Attorney General of Pennsylvania

There is currently no provision within the state open records law that empowers the State Department of Law to enforce the right of the public to access governmental records.

Open meetings

"The General Assembly finds that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decisionmaking of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society."[18]

Notable requests

See also

External links