Government Data Accessibility in the State of Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Public Records Law is a public records and data privacy law that was passed in 1851. The law was enacted for the purpose of providing residents of the state with access to certain public records and government information. To this end, the law has been amended several times since being passed in 1851, most recently in 2017, for the purpose of mandating that government agencies within Massachusetts designate a Records Acess Officer or RAO for short to aid residents in obtaining public records. With all this being said, the law outlines the steps that government and state agencies within Massachusetts must adhere to in an effort to remain transparent to the general public as it relates to the accessibility of public records.
How are public records defined under the law?
Under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, a public record is defined as “all books, papers, maps, photographs, recorded tapes, financial statements, statistical tabulations, or other documentary materials or data, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by a governmental entity unless such materials or data fall within one or more of the exemptions found within G. L. c. 4, § 7(26) or other legally applicable privileges.” Alternatively, the law defines a governmental entity as “any agency or municipality as defined in 950 C.M.R. 32.02. It includes any quasi-governmental agency that is considered a body politic and corporate or public instrumentality. It does not include the legislature and the judiciary.”
What are the obligations of government entities under the law?
The Massachusetts Public Records Law requires government entities in the state of appointing a Records Acess Officer to serve as the point of contact for all public records requests. Furthermore, when granting access to public records, a Records Acess Officer is responsible for ensuring that all personally identifiable information is redacted from the record prior to it being disclosed to the general public. To this point, Records Acess Officers are required to document the following information when making a decision pertaining to a public records request:
- The specific nature of the request and the date on which the request was received.
- The date on which a response was provided to the requesting party.
- The data on which the public records were provided to the requestor.
- The number of hours that were needed to fulfill the request.
- The fees that were charged to the requestor.
- Any petitions that were submitted by the requestor, in accordance with clause (iv) of subsection (d) of the law.
- Any requests that were appealed under section 10A of the law.
- The final adjudication of any associated legal or court proceedings under M.G.L. c. 66, § 10A(d).
Under what circumstances can a public records request be denied?
The Massachusetts Public Records Law designates a wide range of personal records and government information that are exempt from disclosure to the general public. Some examples of such exemptions include but are not limited to:
- Medical, health, and hospital records.
- Grand jury minutes and other related materials.
- Documents pertaining to attorney-client privilege.
- Autopsy reports.
- Materials regarding juvenile delinquency cases.
- Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI).
- Reports of sexual assault, rape, or domestic violence.
- Questions and answers, scoring keys, and other relevant information regarding professional
- licensure examinations within the state of Massachusetts.
- Blueprints, plans, schemes, procedures, policies, and schematic drawings.
- The personal information of elected officials and public servants.
- Trade secrets, proprietary information, and commercial information.
Maintaining compliance with the law
As Records Access Officers working on behalf of government entities within Massachusetts will need to redact certain information from public records prior to disclosing them to the general public, automatic redaction software is an ideal way to accomplish this goal. Using such software programs, Records Access Officers can easily redact personal information, such as dates of birth, social security numbers, and telephone numbers, with the simple click of a button, ensuring that the personal privacy of all parties involved is protected at all times, while simultaneously enabling Massachusetts residents to access public records and government data.
While legislation granting residents of Massachusets the ability to access public records and government information has existed for over 100 years, such laws have not come without criticism. To illustrate this point further, many of the major government institutions within Massachusetts, including the state legislature and the court system, are completely exempt from the provisions of the law. Subsequently, while Massachusetts Public Records Law does provide residents of the state with the means to access government information, the scope and application of the law is somewhat limited when compared with other similar legislation around the country.