Public Records Access and Data Privacy in Alaska
The Alaska Public Records Act (APRA) refers to a series of laws that were enacted for the purpose of guaranteeing that citizens of the state had the means to access the public records of the various government agencies and institutions that serve them. The law was initially passed by the U.S. Congress in 1900, as Alaska had yet to be formally established as a U.S. state. To this point, the law outlines the manner in which a resident within the state of Alaska can go about accessing, inspecting, and copying the public records of a particular government agency or institution that operates within the state, as well as the public records that are exempt from public disclosure.
How are public records defined under the law?
Under the Alaska Public Records Act, public records are defined as “any document, paper, book, letter, drawing, map, plat, photo, photographic file, motion picture film, microfilm, microphotograph, exhibit, magnetic or paper tape, punched card, electronic record or other document of any other material, regardless of physical form or characteristic, developed or received under law or in connection with the transaction of official business.” On the other hand, the law defines a public agency as “a department, office, agency, state board, commission, public corporation or other organizational unit of or created under the executive branch of the state government.”
What are the duties of public agencies under the APRA?
The provisions of the Alaska Public Records Act mandate that public agencies within the state adhere to the following requirements as it pertains to the access of the public records that are maintained by such agencies:
- Public agencies must permit all people, including non-residents of the state, to access the public records that are kept and maintained by a particular public agency within the state of Alaska.
- Unless otherwise specified, all public records that a public agency within the state of Alaska maintains are considered to be public records under the law.
- Public agencies must allow members of the general public to access their public records during the regular office hours of said agencies.
- Public agencies must redact any confidential information that may be present within their public records prior to disclosing such records to a member of the general public.
- As it relates to fees that a public agency charges an individual when providing said individual with access to public records, this fee may not exceed the actual cost that an agency incurs when duplicating its public records. However, public agencies are permitted to charge a requestor additional search fees if the time that is needed to research and collect the requested information exceeds five hours per calendar month.
- Public agencies are forbidden from requesting a justification of need or intended use in relation to the reasoning behind an individual’s request to access the public records of said agencies.
When can a records request be denied under the APRA?
On the other end of the spectrum, the sections of the Alaska Public Records Act also grant public agencies within the state the authority to deny members of the public access to their public records under certain circumstances. With this being said, there are certain public records that are exempt from public disclosure under the provisions of the law. For instance, public agencies are not required to disclose public records pertaining to vital statistics and adoption proceedings. Alternatively, public agencies are also prohibited from disclosing records relating to juveniles within the state of Alaska. Subsequently, some further examples of public records that are exempt from disclosure under the law include:
- Medical and public health records.
- Student and educational records.
- The identities of confidential sources.
- Certain private business records.
- Central oil and gas leasing receipts.
- Information in grant status reports.
- Letters concerning judicial applicants.
- Library use records.
- Worker’s compensation records.
What are the penalties for violating the APRA?
Despite the fact that the Alaska Public Records Act is not enforced by the state attorney general, individuals that feel as though their rights have been violated under the can still look to the state court system for recompense. To this end, aggrieved parties can seek injunctive relief against a public agency within the state that has failed to comply with the law with respect to the access, inspection, and copying of its public records. What’s more, aggrieved parties are also entitled to reasonable court costs and attorney fees that they may incur as a result of bringing their case before a judge.
While Alaska’s statehood occurred relatively recently when compared with many other states around the country, the state nonetheless has a longstanding history of enabling members of the public to access the public records that are maintained by public agencies within the state. This history of government transparency and accountability was further validated by the Alaskan Supreme Court in 2003, when the court ruled that access to public records was a fundamental right. In this way, citizens within the state of Alaska can have the peace of mind that they will be able to access certain public records should they want to become more informed about the decisions that are made by their local government officials.