What To Do if You Don't Get the Records

If you are denied access to information, you can appeal to a higher authority in the agency and ultimately to a court. Under the federal law you go to the U.S. District Court where you live or where the agency is located.

If you become involved in a dispute over access, issues that may have to be addressed include whether the information you seek is a public records, whether it is exempt or contains exempt information, and what form the agency must disclose it in. Agencies often acquire and file information that isn't considered public records.

State open records laws often say a record is a "public record" only if the agency is required to prepare or keep that record. Therefore, if the city finance agency is not required to keep plans for a building under construction, it doesn't have to disclose those plans even if it has them.

If a record contains exempt information that can be segregated from non-exempt information, it must disclose the non-exempt data. Sometimes you will receive photocopies of records with areas blacked out with black marker. You will have experienced the heavy hand of the agency's FOI officers.

There are many resources online to assist you in using federal and state open records and meetings laws. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center are among them. For links to some of these organizations, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information and Privacy, and several state agencies click here.