How good is public access to government? It depends.
It depends on the state. Each of the 50 states has its own public access law.
It depends on the individual law. In some states, the public is guaranteed broad access to records in all three branches of government. In others, the laws often exempt the Judicial branch. And in a few states – Massachusetts among them – public access laws exempt both Legislative and Judicial branches.
It depends on the records. In all 50 states, some records are exempt from disclosure. One example: investigative files kept by public safety agencies. Another: personal tax information kept by state revenue officials.
It depends on the sophistication and good will of public officials. In many states, too many public officials do not know what is statutorily public. In too many cases, public officials block public access to records, and even public meetings, even when they know the law.
It depends on the sanctions. In many states, public agencies that wrongly deny access to public records can face fines. Or they can be forced to pay the legal costs of a lawsuit brought to free up records that should be public. But in many other states, there is no penalty for such behavior.
And it depends on how well you know the law, and how well you employ that knowledge. That is why we have a guide to the public access laws in each of the New England states.
Please take advantage of this guide. Learn how strong the public access laws are in your state.
And remember: The law is your ally. But use it wisely. Most public officials will cooperate with any polite request. Most agencies will make records available without asking for a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Filing a FOIA often gives a recalcitrant agency little choice but to comply. But FOIAs delay access. Avoid taking that step if you can. If you plan to request public records, take advantage of the tips and sample forms we have included.