If you’ve handled public records requests long enough, you’ve probably faced this scenario at least once: an email pops up in your browser, asking for a set of public records, and based on the request you’re pretty sure that the information isn’t going to be used for the noblest of purposes. Profiteering, dirt-digging, and just plain old nosiness can motivate a public records request, and it’s understandable if these kinds of requests make you squirm.
Regardless of motive, though, the law makes it clear that you have to fill the request. G.S. 132-6 says,
Every custodian of public records shall permit any record in the custodian’s custody to be inspected and examined at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision by any person… [emphasis added]
The definition of “person” here is the legal one, too, so that includes corporations and other organizations treated as individual entities by law. The statute continues,
No person requesting to inspect and examine public records, or to obtain copies thereof, shall be required to disclose the purpose or motive for the request.
No matter what intentions someone has when making a public records request, you have to supply the record the same way you would for anyone else. Since the law makes it explicit that no one can be required to disclose a motive, we recommend that you don’t even ask.
So, what information can I ask for?
The law doesn’t forbid you from asking questions of someone making a public records request. Asking people to fill out request forms can greatly improve efficiency, and if these forms help you fulfill your legal obligations, they are encouraged. Do keep two questions in mind, though, as you think about asking for information from people who make public records requests:
- Does the information we ask for help us do our job better?
- Could the way we ask for information be construed as trying to limit rights of access?
The first question helps ensure that whatever information you want to ask for can be justified in the course of business. Collecting superfluous information, even if requesters know they aren’t required to give it, can give the impression that an agency is not following the spirit of public records law.
The second question helps ensure that no one is misled into believing that information about themselves which is, in fact, wholly voluntary, is required. If you use a form system, make sure that people who make requests through forms are aware that the only information they have to provide is the request itself.
Ultimately, remember that if a stranger walks into your office and asks to see a public record, she doesn’t even have to give you her name for you to fill the request.
In the paragraphs above, I’ve used phrases like “you have to supply the record.” All the normal exceptions, of course, still apply. If there’s a specific statute that exempts the record requested from public access, you’re not required to supply it, and actually may be prohibited from doing so.
One additional exception stands out. Some requestors, especially those making the requests for commercial reasons, may ask for lists of information that you would have to gather from existing documents. If you already have these lists, turn them over. Otherwise, you are normally not obligated to create a new record as the result of a record request. If the requestor wishes to make the compilation himself, he can. You do not have to do his research for him.
UNC’s School of Government Local Government Blog has two excellent posts related to this topic, located here and here. As always, if you receive a public records request and are unsure if you have to fulfill it, please contact one of our analysts.