Celebrate Sunshine Week by making your first records request
Public records laws are necessary for holding government accountable
It’s Sunshine Week, a week that journalists use to highlight the important of freedom-of-information laws. These laws are vital — they help make it possible for the public to understand how tax dollars are being spent, what public officials are saying behind closed doors, and whether government employees are held accountable for misconduct. For example, my investigation of alleged police brutality in Berkshire County would have been impossible without the Massachusetts public records law.
Last Sunshine Week, I shared my advice for filing your first public records request in Massachusetts. I republished that advice below.
Making a Public Records Request
Public records are called “public” for a reason. They’re not just for journalists or lawyers. Anyone can make a public records request, and everyone should try at some point — what better time than Sunshine Week? It might seem a little daunting at first, but once you get the idea it’s as simple as sending an email to the right person. Here are the basics.
First, think about why you are making your request. Maybe something you read in a news story raised a question in your mind. Is it possible you could answer that question with the right records? State law defines public records broadly — “all books, papers, maps, photographs, recorded tapes, financial statements, statistical tabulations, or other documentary materials or data, regardless of physical form or characteristics.” The law applies to almost anything you can think of. Could there be emails between government officials that would shed some light on your question? Were any contracts signed? Is there a written policy? Is there a database that you could analyze if you had access to it? If you are interested in a specific incident, did anyone write a report about it? Was the incident captured by a police body camera or perhaps a surveillance camera?
Every town, city, and state agency must appoint at least one records access officer (RAO). Sometimes municipalities have different RAOs for different agencies (for example, an RAO who handles all requests for the police department). You should generally be able to find the contact information for RAOs online. If the contact information isn’t listed, try calling the municipality or agency to ask about it. If you’re requesting records from a municipality, you can also try sending your request to the town/city clerk.
You can send your request by mail or email — email is usually the best way to do it. Some municipalities and state agencies also have online portals for making requests, although they cannot require you to use them.
Next, draft your request. How you word your request is up to you, but it should be as specific as possible to avoid any confusion and delays. Being specific is also important because requesting a large number of records might result in the RAO assessing fees. Depending on what you request, you might want to specify a date range. On the other hand, being too specific might mean that you miss out on records of interest, so give the wording some thought before you hit send. Sometimes there are multiple ways of approaching a request — for example, you can try asking an RAO to provide emails that contain specific search terms instead of emails related to a certain topic.
Your request doesn’t have to follow a specific format, but the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office has a template that you can use when you are getting started. If you intend to make a lot of requests, you might want to create your own template. I created voice-recognition commands that insert my own custom template, which I occasionally update. It specifies that records should be provided in an electronic format that is searchable and machine readable. It also says that if the RAO believes my request is overly broad, they should provide a description of what records are in their possession so that I can make an informed decision about whether to narrow my request.
After you submit your request, the municipality or agency has 10 business days to respond (approximately two weeks). If you’re lucky, you will get all the records you request. The RAO might also say that they need more time or that your request is unclear or overly broad. If this happens, try starting a back and forth with the RAO to get a satisfactory resolution.
It’s also possible that you won’t get a response or that the RAO will refuse to release the records, will heavily redact the records, or will assess a large fee. If this happens, you can challenge the response by sending an appeal to the supervisor of public records, who is part of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office. You can find more information about that process here.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office publishes “A Guide to the Massachusetts Public Records Law.” It’s not strictly necessary to read this before making your first request, but you absolutely should review it at some point. If you end up making an appeal, you will find the sections about exemptions and fees very informative. You should save a copy of the guide to your computer and use it as a reference, especially when making appeals.
I don’t want to say too much about the appeals process right now, but don’t be too intimidated by it. Your appeal doesn’t have to be written in legalese — simple language is usually better. For instance, if an agency says it will not release records and includes boilerplate language about an exemption but does not specify how the exemption applies to the records, simply pointing out that fact is usually sufficient. Sometimes there’s more to it than that, but don’t stress about mastering the appeals process before you make your first request. Once you get a response, you have 90 days to make an appeal, so you’ll have plenty of time to figure out what to do.
After the 2016 public records law took effect, I wrote a piece for DigBoston with some information that you might find helpful. MuckRock and the New England First Amendment Coalition also have resources that are worth checking out. If you’re an auditory learner, NEFAC has some great videos.
If you ever get confused, try reaching out to someone with experience making requests. I do my best to answer questions that people send me, and I’ve found that many other journalists involved with public records are generous with their time and expertise. Naturally, the spirit of openness pervades the open-government community. On a related note, if you have an interesting — or perhaps frustrating — story about trying to obtain public records, send it to me and I’ll consider writing about it. You can send me an email here or a direct message on Twitter.
This piece was first published on March 14, 2022.
Making a Public Records Appeal
If you’d like to learn more about the appeals process, I recently appeared on The Weed Out podcast to share my advice. I explained how to file an appeal with the supervisor of public records, how to challenge excessive fees and overbroad exemption claims, when to ask the supervisor to perform a so-called in camera review of records, and what to do when an agency ignores an order from the supervisor.
You can listen here:
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