US Open Public Records Laws in Desperate Need for Unity

Diversity is a terrible thing.

Before dashing off an email criticizing me, I’m not talking diversity of race, gender or ethnicity, which I wholeheartedly support. I’m talking about diversity among public records laws.

Consider these national disparities in public records requests. A Pennsylvania citizen requests a criminal investigative record under its state’s Right to Know Law and is denied because those records, by law, are off limits. Even if the records were 100 years old and all parties were deceased, these records are off the table in perpetuity.

An Illinois citizen seeks similar criminal investigative records but receives portions of the records—but only after an expensive legal fight. Recall the withholding of a video public record that showed a now-convicted police officer pumping 16 bullets into the back of a retreating black teenager who held a knife. It took a court order, but the public record was released.

In Florida, the right to obtain public records is embedded in the state constitution. Apropos the Sunshine State, where citizens often obtain investigative records—and relatively quickly.

As a former Associated Press journalist and First Amendment and transparency attorney, I created the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records and the Illinois Public Access Counselor’s office, enforcing sunshine laws. These offices helped citizens, journalists and corporations understand and obtain public records.

I’m leveraging three decades of experience at the intersection of media, law and government to unveil a long-held vision for unified open records legislation in every state.

During a speech to the National Freedom of Information Coalition in Cincinnati last month I asked fellow advocates: “Aren’t we sick and tired of going to the same conferences year after year and telling and hearing the same stories about how government denies basic public records requests or takes years to respond?”

It’s time to turn the fatigue of our complaints into a unified code. (Read more…)