The Massachusetts Public Records Law

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The founding fathers of our nation strove to develop an open government formed on the principles of democracy and public participation. An informed citizen is better equipped to participate in that process.

Laws mandating the disclosure of public records have existed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1851. The federal Freedom of Information Act was signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1974, Congress amended the federal Freedom of Information Act in order to make government records more accessible to the public. (Bill Galvin, MA Sec of State)

The Massachusetts Public Records Law provides the public one tool to use to try and insure transparency in Gov’t.

Below are some of the highlights of the Sec of States Guide to public records

What records are public?
Every record that is made or received by a government entity or employee is presumed to be a public record unless a specific statutory exemption permits or requires it to be withheld in whole or in part.
Specific statutory exemptions have been created by the legislature. These exemptions, which are discretionary to the records custodian, allow the records custodian to withhold a record from the general public.
The exemptions to the Public Records Law are described in this guide. If a records custodian claims an exemption and withholds a record, the records custodian has the burden of showing how the exemption applies to the record and why it should be withheld.

How do I obtain copies of public records?
To obtain a copy of a record, you must make a request to the state or local records custodian of the record. For example, if you wish to obtain a copy of the minutes of an open meeting, you should direct your request to the records custodian of that board. Similarly, a request for a copy of a police daily log should be made to the police department that created the log.

How must a records custodian respond to my request for records?
A records custodian’s response must be in writing. The response must include a good faith estimate of any cost of providing the record. The response must also include a specific exemption to the Public Records Law to justify the denial of access to any record.

Does the Public Records Law apply to email and other computer records?
The Public Records Law applies to all government records generated, received or maintained electronically, including computer records, electronic mail, video and audiotapes.

Is a requester required to disclose the intended use of the public record requested?
With the possible exception of situations where the records custodian is anticipating the withholding of records pursuant to Exemption (n) of the Public Records Law, a records custodian may not ask a requester the reason for the request or the intended use of the requested records.3

Are records custodians required to forward a request for records not in their possession?

Records custodians must use their superior knowledge to ensure that a request for records is delivered to the appropriate party. A large public records request may include items for which the custodian is not responsible. It is in the public interest for the custodian to forward such requests to the appropriate parties in responding to a public records request.

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