Filing a Right to Know Request

How do I go about obtaining records from a local government or state agency? Start by obtaining a copy of the standard Right to Know Request form. You may download it from the state Office of Open Records website.

Local and commonwealth agencies may have their own forms, but they must accept the state’s standard form if you choose to use it.

Legislative and judicial agencies may require you to use their own forms. Determine which agency will most likely have the records and submit the form to that agency.

Do I have to use a form? No, a letter or email will do. But the form is simple and short, and if you use it, there can be no doubt that you are requesting records under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

What personal information do I have to provide? Only your name and mailing address are required. A telephone number is optional.

How should I say what I’m looking for? You must describe the records you want in as much detail as possible so the agency can identify the records you are seeking.

Always remember: The Right-to-Know Law provides access to records or documents, so that is what you must request. Do not ask the agency to answer questions for you. Agencies are required to provide records. They are not required to provide answers to your questions.

What other information do I need to provide? You should indicate if you want copies made of the records, if you want electronic copies, or if you simply want to come to the agency office and inspect the records. If you want certified copies made, indicate that as well.

Agencies may charge you a per-page fee for making copies, which can add up quickly (you can request to be notified if fees exceed $100). So you may wish to examine the records in person first, then ask for copies of just those pages you identify as containing the information you want.

How do I submit my request? You can make a request four ways: by mail, by fax, by e-mail, or in person. No matter how you submit it, always keep a copy of the request for yourself. You will need it if you wish to file an appeal.

So I may ask for records in person? Yes. However, if you wish to take advantage of the appeal process in case you are denied, the request must be in writing. So you should always use a form unless you are making a very routine request that you expect to be fulfilled while you wait.

So I may make a request by e-mail? Yes. The law requires public agencies to accept requests made by e-mail. Just make sure you send your request to the correct email address. It is is always good to get confirmation that your request has been received.

Where do I send my request? The request should be addressed to the agency’s open records officer. Each agency must have someone designated to this position. By law, this information must be posted at the agency’s office, and posted on the agency’s website, if it has one. There should be contact information for the open records officer as well.

What if I can’t find the name or address of the agency’s open records officer? Consult the Office of Open Records website, which maintains a registry of open records officers across the state, with name, address, phone, fax, and e-mail address.

Note that these lists may not be complete or up to date, as it is up to each agency to submit its open records office information to the OOR.

Must I explain why I want the information? No. The law prohibits an agency from requiring anyone “to disclose the purpose or motive in requesting access to records.” However, an agency may need to ask you some questions in order to understand exactly what you are looking for so that it can fulfill your request. But the agency can’t make you tell them why you want the records as a condition of providing access.

Can a public body limit the number of requests that I can make? No. The law states a state or local agency cannot limit the number of records which may be requested or made available for inspection or duplication. However, use good judgment and try to refine your request as specifically as possible. “Fishing expeditions” are ill advised. Don’t use this law to harass or overburden an agency from performing its job. Also, a public body can deny repeated requests for the same records by the same requester.

Can a request be denied because I am not a citizen of Pennsylvania? No. Any legal resident of the United States can request a record, including a person with a green card.

How long does an agency have to respond? All agencies now have just five business days to respond to your request. (The first of those days is the first business day after your request is received.)

Under certain circumstances–such as when legal review or redaction are necessary, or when the request is extensive–an agency may take up to 30 additional days to give you a full response. But it still must respond within that first five business days, notifying you of the time extension.

What if I don’t hear back from them within the time limit? First, make sure the agency has received your request. It is a good idea to follow through after your request is submitted to make sure it has been received.

Second, make sure you allow enough time for a response to reach you by mail. (The initial response must be sent by the fifth business day, not received by you by that date.). If you truly do not get a response, then your request is “deemed denied,” and you may file an appeal. It is important that you put your request in writing, so you have documentation of when the request was made.

What else do I need to know? Pennsylvania’s new Right-to-Know Law, enacted in 2009, is very complex, and access to some kinds of records is still a matter of debate. There are “exceptions” in the law which allow agencies to withhold certain records, for example, and some of these are still being interpreted in the courts.

There is much more you should know about the law before filing your first request. You should know how the law defines “public record,” and you should know the four types of agencies that are covered by the law. You should be familiar with the list of exceptions, and know what kinds of records may be withheld. You should know what fees may be charged, and what the appeals process is if your request is denied.

Where can I go for help? The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to helping people understand and use the state’s open records and open meetings law. The PaFOIC has a free online forum where anyone can post questions and get answers on Right to Know issues.

You will also find the latest news and information about Right-to-Know issues, the complete text of the law, and other resources that will help you understand and use the law.

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