Public Records Access and Data Privacy Law in D.C.
The District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act or FOIA is a public records and data privacy law that was initially enacted in 1967. To this point, the had been amended several times since 1967, most notably in 2001, when the provisions of the D.C. FOIA were extended to both the District of Columbia Council and legislature. With all this being said, the law outlines the steps that government agencies must take to ensure that certain public records and information are made accessible to the general public. Furthermore, the law out sets forth the guidelines that must be followed when denying a public records request.
How is a public body defined under the law?
Under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act, a public body is defined as “any government council, including the Council of the District of Columbia, board, commission, or similar entity, including a board of directors of an instrumentality, a board which supervises or controls an agency, or an advisory body that takes official action by the vote of its members convened for such purpose.” Alternatively, the term publicly body does not include “any D.C. government agency (other than the board which supervises or controls an agency or the board of directors of an instrumentality); D.C. courts; individual charter school governing bodies; the Mayor’s cabinet; staff of public bodies when they meet outside the presence of a quorum of those bodies; or D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.”
What are the duties of public bodies under the law?
The District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act mandates that public bodies develop rules and regulations that members of the general public can follow when looking to access government records and information. These rules and regulations must include the following elements:
- Any person has the right to both inspect and copy public records at their own discretion, subject to certain exceptions. Moreover, public bodies must ensure that the rules that govern the time and places of access under which members of the public can access personal records are reasonable.
- When fulfilling a public records request, a public body is required to provide the records to an individual in the form or format that they have requested, provided that the individual in question is willing to pay for such request.
- When responding to a public records request, public bodies must put forth a reasonable effort to provide individuals with records that are in electronic format or form, except in instances where these efforts would interfere with a public body’s automated data or information system.
- Public bodies are prohibited from charging individuals fees that exceed the cost of searching for, reviewing, and making copies of records. What’s more, public bodies are forbidden from requiring an individual to pay for a public records request in advance, unless the requester in question has failed to pay their fees in a timely manner during a previous instance.
- Public bodies must ensure that private contractors that have been hired to perform a public function within Washington D.C. are able to access public information and records for the purpose of fulfilling said public function.
What records are exempt from public consumption?
On the other end of the spectrum, there are certain categories of records and information that are not available for public consumption. Such records and information include but are not limited to:
- Public records that would constitute an invasion of an individual’s personal privacy if they were to be disclosed.
- Public records concerning enforcement proceedings and council investigations.
- Public records that would endanger the life or physical safety of an individual if they were to be disclosed.
- Public records regarding procedures and investigative techniques that are not generally known to the public.
- Public records that would reveal the identity or whereabouts of a confidential informant or source if they were to be disclosed.
- Public records pertaining to test questions and answers that will be used in future academic, employment, or licensure examinations within Washington D.C.
How can public bodies comply with the law?
One major way in which public bodies operating within Washington D.C. can comply with legislation such as the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act is through the implementation of automatic redaction software. When an individual files a public records request, a public body may need to remove certain forms of personal information prior to fulfilling the said request. In these instances, a public body could use an automatic redaction software program to render personal data such as names, addresses, and dates of birth inaccessible to the public, ensuring that all records requests can be completed while simultaneously protecting the personal information and privacy of all parties involved.
As both federal and state governments within the U.S. rely on money from American taxpayers to perform their essential functions, it is imperative that these public bodies remain transparent and accountable to the citizens they serve. Within Washington D.C., the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act provides residents with the means to hold their elected officials accountable, as the law enables them to access certain information and public records at their leisure. In this way, they can see the ways in which their tax dollars are being spent and allocated within society.