Open Public Records Access in the State of North Carolina
The North Carolina Public Records Law is a public record and government data privacy law that was initially passed in 1935. The provisions of the law grant North Carolina residents the right to inspect a wide array of records pertaining to their elected government officials, state departments, and public agencies. To this point, the law outlines the steps that government and state agencies within North Carolina must follow to make their records available for public inspection. Moreover, the law also outlines the procedures that government and state agencies must follow when denying a request to disclose their records at the request of a North Carolina resident.
How are public records defined under the law?
Under the North Carolina Public Records Law, public records are defined as “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions. Agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions shall mean and include every public office, public officer or official (State or local, elected or appointed), institution, board, commission, bureau, council, department, authority or other unit of government of the State or of any county, unit, special district or other political subdivision of government.”
What are the obligations of government officials and agencies?
As it pertains to facilitating the access of public records to citizens within the state of North Carolina, the responsibilities that government agencies and officials have under the North Carolina Public Records Law include but are not limited to:
- Government agencies are prohibited from requiring a North Carolina citizen to put their request for public records into writing, as the law states that requests to access public records can be made in person, via email, and by phone, among other methods.
- Government agencies within North Carolina must respond to all requests to access public records that are made by U.S. citizens, as the law does not require individuals requesting access to said records to be citizens of the state.
- Government agencies must allow individuals to inspect their public records during reasonable times and under reasonable supervision.
- While the law does not establish a time period upon which a government agency must respond to a request to access their public records, government agencies are responsible for furnishing their records to an individual after the said individual has paid all fees associated with their request.
- In instances where a government agency maintains records that contain both public and confidential information, said government agency is responsible for redacting the personal information from the said records prior to disclosing them to the general public.
- With respect to the maintenance of public records, government agencies are responsible for storing their records within vaults, fireproof safes, or rooms fitted with noncombustible materials.
What public records are considered to be confidential under the law?
While the North Carolina Public Records Law permits U.S. citizens to request access to public records concerning the function and activities of state and government agencies, some records are exempt from the law, and must remain confidential. To this end, some of the records that must remain confidential under the law include:
- Records that contain information concerning emergency response plans that may be implemented by a public body or government agency within the state.
- Records that must remain confidential under another state or federal law, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA.
- Records pertaining to autopsies, such as photos, video recordings, audio files, and official reports.
- Records that are maintained by local school boards within North Carolina, such as volunteer information.
- Personnel records concerning public employees, such as medical professionals and law enforcement officials.
- Records regarding business and industrial projects, as well as incentives that relate to such projects.
- Records that detail the trade and corporate secrets of companies that do business with government agencies within the state of North Carolina.
- Attorney-client communications that are protected in accordance with the principle of attorney-client privilege.
Public records access and redaction
As some government records will contain both personal and confidential information, due to the nature of government functions, government agencies have to balance the obligations of adhering to legislation such as the North Carolina Public Records Law while simultaneously safeguarding the privacy of all parties involved. To accomplish this goal, automatic redaction software is an ideal way to scrub personal information across a wide range of mediums, including documents, emails, audio files, and video recordings. Using these software programs, a record custodian within North Carolina can easily remove personal information from their records, such as telephone numbers or postal addresses, ensuring that they do not infringe upon the personal privacy rights of others.
The North Carolina Public Records Law stands as the foremost means by which residents of the state can request access to the public record of their elected government officials. Through the provisions of the law, government officials and agencies have a number of duties as it concerns providing North Carolina citizens with the opportunity to access their public records and information. As public records laws are one of the primary means by which the everyday working citizen can gain better insight into the decisions that are being made by their local government institutions, such legislation is of the utmost importance.