The Sunshine Weekly is a new column from the Raleigh Public Record. The idea here is to make public records requests and publish the documents that come out of the requests full text on our website. This is where you come in. What do you want to know from your government? We will request documents from city, county, state and federal departments, the only catch is that it needs to be related to Raleigh in some fashion. But we will do the legwork.
Amanda Martin is the general counsel for the North Carolina Press Association and an attorney with Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens in Raleigh. She took time out of her busy schedule litigating on media issues to answer a couple questions about public records for Sunshine Weekly and Raleigh Public Record.
What is a public record?
Basically, a public record is any document that is either made or received by a public agency (i.e. a governmental agency or one of its employees) that relates to public business.
What is not a public record?
There are more than 100 statutory provisions that exempt things like tax returns and medical records from the scope of the public records law. Those exemptions are too numerous to list, but they provide privacy protections to individuals and corporations, and they safeguard “sensitive” government information such as public employees’ personnel records.
What is the difference between state and federal law for public records and how do they interact?
Federal law (the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA) applies to documents that are in the hands of federal executive branch agencies. The North Carolina Public Records Law applies to documents that are in the hands of any state or local government agency or employee.
How do North Carolina public records laws stack up against other states?
North Carolina is considered to have a strong public records law. Despite the many exemptions from the statute, our courts have said that the law should be interpreted broadly to provide access. Another strength of our law is the requirement that public agencies provide copies of public records at “actual cost,” that is a public agency cannot charge for labor or other overhead expenses when calculating what to charge for a document.
How do you go about getting public records?
You just ask. There is no magic language that needs to be used. Simply make a request to see or copy the document you want. It can be helpful to “invoke” the public records law, to remind the public agency that you have a right to the document you seek.
Is there anything else you think RPR readers should know about public record laws?
It would be great if citizen became comfortable asking for public records. There is a lot of information out there, accessible to the public, if we just ask.