Public Records Accessibility in the State of Rhode Island
The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act or APRA for short is a public records accessibility law that was first enacted in 1979. Subsequently, the law has been amended several times since being passed, most recently in 2008, when the penalties for violating the law were increased. To this point, the APRA guarantees that citizens of the state of Rhode Island will have access to the public records of the government bodies that serve said citizens within the state, at all levels. With this being said, the law sets forth the steps that government bodies within Rhode Island must take to ensure that citizens can request access to their public records.
How is a public body defined under the law?
Under the APRA, a public body is defined as “any executive, legislative, judicial, regulatory, or administrative body of the state, or any political subdivision thereof; including, but not limited to: any department, division, agency, commission, board, office, bureau, authority; any school, fire, or water district, or other agency of Rhode Island state or local government that exercises governmental functions; any authority as defined in § 42-35-1(b); or any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of and/or in place of any public agency.” Conversely, the law defines public business as “any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power.”
What are the duties of government bodies under the APRA?
Some of the requirements that government bodies operating within the state of Rhode Island have under the APRA as it pertains to providing citizens of the state with access to their public records and information include:
- All records that are maintained or kept on file by a government body within Rhode Island are considered to be public records under the law.
- Public bodies are responsible for creating procedures that Rhode Island citizens can follow when looking to request access to their public records. These procedures must include how and where a public records request can be made, as well as the designation of a public records access unit or officer, among other pertinent information.
- Citizens of Rhode Island have the right to request access to a public body’s records in any format that said body maintains its records in.
- Public bodies within Rhode Island are responsible for keeping and maintaining records concerning their meetings, in either written or electronic form.
- In instances where a public body maintains records that contain both public and private or confidential information, the body in question is responsible for redacting all confidential information from said records prior to disclosing the records to the general public.
When can a public records request be denied under the APRA?
The provisions of the APRA forbid public body’s within the state of Rhode Island from denying a public records request that has been made by a citizen of the state solely on the basis of the purpose for which said citizen has made their request. Moreover, the APRA prohibits public body’s from mandating that a citizen provide a reason, or personally identifiable information relating to them, when requesting access to their public records. Alternatively, there are some public records that are exempt from the provisions of the APRA. To this end, some examples of public records that are exempt from public disclosure under the law include:
- Records detailing individual test scores regarding professional licensure examinations within the state of Rhode Island.
- Financial information, such as credit card numbers, that are in the possession of a public official or body.
- Personal tax returns.
- Public school employee evaluations that contain personally identifiable information.
- Documentation maintained by school districts that detail the procedures that will be used to protect students from a potential or actual threat.
- Records, information, or opinions that must remain confidential under other applicable federal or state laws.
What are the penalties for violating the APRA?
With respect to the penalties that can be imposed against public bodies and officials within the state of Rhode Island that are found to be in violation of APRA, individuals, and entities that fail to abide by the provisions of the law are subject to a wide range of punishments. Most notably, public bodies that fail to comply with the law are subject to a monetary penalty of up to $1,000, as well as reasonable costs and attorney fees, in instances where said bodies are found to have violated the law recklessly. Furthermore, public bodies that are found to have violated the law willfully and intentionally are subject to a monetary penalty of up to $2,000, as well as reasonable costs and attorney fees.
When compared with many other U.S. states, the list of public records and information that citizens of the state of Rhode Island have the right to access under the sections established in the APRA is extensive. What’s more, through the penalties that can be levied against public bodies and government agencies within Rhode Island that fail to comply with the law, there is a great incentive to uphold these public records access rights. In this way, the residents of Rhode Island have a legal framework that will enable them to hold their government officials accountable.