Happy Sunshine Week! This week, newspapers across the country published stories about the importance of open public records and measure how well their local governments allow access to information.
Public records are very serious business for newspapers because they form the backbone of most newspaper stories. Newspapers are the loudest ones screaming when legislators have the gall to attempt limiting public records.
Governments usually give special treatment to journalists, but you have just as much right to access these records. Don’t know whether a record is public or not? Just ask for it. The government must respond with the exact statute if they deny you. This makes it easy for you to look up the law.
When you’re reading this newspaper today, I bet you can find at least one piece of information a reporter got from a government agency.
The term FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) is an acronym commonly used when describing the activity of accessing records from government agencies. But each state has a name for their own public records law. In Texas it is called the Public Information Act.
“Public records” generally are defined as records, regardless of their physical form, made or received in connection with official government business. “Regardless of physical form” means that public records come in various forms, not just paper records. They can also be electronic, such as email or data stored on government computers. They can also be photos, video or audio.
So, the emails of your mayor, a mug shot, video from a police dashcam, audio from a court hearing, the deed on your neighbor’s property and their water usage may all be public records. Using your public records law, you can check out a health care provider. Just go to medical licensing board and request discipline reports on a doctor. You can find out if a psychiatrist was ever disciplined for sexual misconduct, substance abuse or has a record of over-drugging children.
You can find out if a doctor has done any wrong-side surgery or a dentist has improperly done an extraction, which resulted in complications. If you request enough public records, you will see the free flow of information from government agencies. You get into a rhythm — you ask, you receive, back and forth, on and on and things are sailing along smoothly and then “Clunk!,” the machine stops! Some attorney, trained to stop the flow and prevent access to records or some recalcitrant government worker or some state statute or agency “policy” slams the door shut. “Request Denied!” But don’t let that stop you.
Just Google the statute they gave you in denying the records. Are they right or not? If not, ask them once again for the record and quote the statute.
Public records are your records. They are public. Governments are simply the custodians of the records.
Good luck on your search of public records!