By Arielle Levin Becker
There’s a tremendous amount of information about how our public institutions work and the decisions made by government officials. It’s all available to any member of the public; all we have to do is ask. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
“Freedom of information is very fundamental to our democracy,” said Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission and a member of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s board. “Our democracy is based on the idea that citizens have a right to know what their government is up to, so that they can make informed decisions about who to elect and what to participate in.”
Reporters use public records on a regular basis, but you don’t have to be a professional to request public records. Here are some key things to know.
1. Government information belongs to you
If you’re wondering whether certain information is available to the public, here’s a general guideline:
“Government information belongs to the public,” Murphy said. “The basic premise is that anything that government creates or maintains, it belongs to the public.”
This includes the minutes of a town council’s meetings, as well as the paperwork council members receive to prepare for the meeting. It includes correspondence involving government employees – including emails and text messages. Court files about lawsuits or criminal cases are public records, as are contracts signed by government agencies.
“The law applies to every public agency in Connecticut, from your local school or your local tax assessor, all the way up to the governor,” Murphy said.
2. Some things are off limits
As with most rules, there are exceptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Among the government documents that are NOT public:
- Drafts or notes – if a public agency has determined that the public interest in withholding them “clearly outweighs” the public interest in disclosing them
- Personnel or medical files – if disclosing them would constitute “an invasion of personal privacy”
- Certain law enforcement records (such as those that would expose the identity of an informant, witness, or victims of certain crimes; or arrest records of juveniles)
- Trade secrets
- Test questions and scoring keys for licensing exams (sorry, you can’t request an exam key)
- Names or addresses of students in public schools or colleges
Even so, Murphy noted, there are nuances. Some aspects of personnel files for public employees might be deemed private, but other parts are open to the public. The presumption in law is that information is open, and exemptions must be narrowly construed.
3. Don’t take “no” for an answer without a reason
Mike Savino, the local and state news editor at the Meriden Record-Journal, said every records request should include a line asking the government agency to cite a specific reason if it denies all or part of the request.
“The burden of proof is on the public agency, and that’s a really important thing,” said Savino, who is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a member of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government board. “In order to not take no for an answer, you have that on your side. The public agency has to explain why you cannot have that.”
4. You don’t have to tell anyone why you want the information
While it’s important to make your request as clear as possible to ensure you get what you want, Murphy said people should know they don’t have to explain what they plan to do with the information.
5. There are people you can turn to for help
If you’re not sure how to make a request, you can find sample freedom of information request letters online. Here’s one tailored for Connecticut from the nonprofit National Freedom of Information Coalition: https://www.nfoic.org/connecticut-sample-foia-request
The Freedom of Information Commission is available to answer questions about public information. “We really invite everybody to do that,” Murphy said. (To reach the commission, call 860-566-5682.)
Savino said the Freedom of Information Commission can help give people a sense of what the law does or doesn’t allow. Even if a situation goes to a hearing, he added, the hearing officer can ask questions and help level the playing field to make sure the Freedom of Information Act is applied fairly.
“The process is user-friendly,” he said.
Arielle Levin Becker of Connecticut Health Foundation is a CFOG board member.