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December 21, 2014

How to get public records: A guide for citizens

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Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2014 12:59 am | Updated: 1:11 am, Sun Aug 10, 2014.

Who can ask for public records?

Under Alabama law “any citizen” has the right to look at, or get a copy of, any public writing.

What can I get?

“Any public writing of this state, unless otherwise expressly provided by statute.” That’s what the law says.

“Generally you have the right to see any document provided by the state unless it is deemed confidential,” said Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association.

There are more than 80 laws declaring specific records confidential. They include:

• Juvenile court records

• Library user registration and history

• Tax returns

Still, if an agency can’t show you a law that protects a record from release, it should be available to you.

How do I request a public document?

Send a letter to the agency that possesses the document.

In the letter, you should:

• Cite the open records law itself.

• Explain what document you want, as specifically as you can. A request for minutes from a specific meeting will usually get a quicker response than a broader request, such as a request for “any correspondence” between two parties.

• Remind the public official that if they deny the records request, they should show you where the law states that record can be confidential.

• If you want the records in electronic form, make that plain.

• To avoid “sticker shock,” ask the officials to let you know, as soon as possible, if there will be a charge

What if my records request is denied?

Let The Star know. As part of our “Access Denied” series, we intend to keep track of denied records requests and look more deeply into the reasons state officials withhold information.

Write us: The Anniston Star, P.O. Box 189, Anniston AL 36202.

Email: tlockette@annistonstar.com

On Twitter: use the hashtag

#accessdeniedAL

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