Public Records Are Not Always Accessible

Q.: What, exactly, is considered to be a "public" record in Ohio?

A.: A public record is just about any record kept by any branch of government within the state.

Q.: When someone says, "It's a matter of public record," does this mean I can get a copy of any record kept by a branch of government within Ohio?

A.: The law provides a way for anyone to have access to a vast array of information - about themselves, their neighbors, even strangers - without having to explain who you are, why you want the information or what you plan to do with it. Further, the law says that any person can have access to any public record at "all reasonable times during regular business hours," and that copies of public records must be made available "at cost."

There are, however, limits to what you can access. In fact, there are 24 exceptions within the open records law itself, and perhaps hundreds of other exemptions that can be found elsewhere in state law, granting confidentiality for everything from government agencies' trade secrets to the home addresses of licensed radon inspectors.

Q.: What kind of items are in the list of exemptions?

A.: They range from the simple, like medical and adoption records, to the complex, like "confidential law enforcement investigatory" records.

Q.: What is the reasoning behind these exemptions?

A.: Concern for personal privacy was the primary reason in some cases, like medical, adoption and abortion records. Public universities sought an exemption for "donor profile records" to protect personal information about people who donated to university foundations. Law enforcement agencies sought several exemptions to protect their unfinished investigations.

Q.: I asked for a copy of a police report recently, and was asked to give my name and address and the reason I was requesting it. I thought anyone could get a public record with no questions asked.

A.: Even though the law says anyone can have access to public records and does not require this information, some local governments ask or even require that the person seeking the records fill out a detailed form containing name, address, phone number, employer, purpose of the request and planned use of the record. Such a demand has no support in the law, however.

Q.: How much can I expect to pay for copies of public records?

A.: The law says government agencies must provide copies "at cost," but that cost will vary from one agency to another. For example, the Ohio Attorney General's office charges five cents a page, while other agencies may charge as much as $5.00 per page. While the Supreme Court of Ohio has not defined "actual cost," it has said that $1.00 per page is too much.

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Can I request a public record by mail?

A.: Yes. Recent amendments to the law, public records are now available through the mail (expect to pay in advance, though) and available on a computer disk, if the original information is stored in computer files.

The information contained herein is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting with one of our attorneys.


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