Q: What is a "sunshine law"?
A: In Ohio, the "sunshine laws" refer to Ohio's Public Records Act and Ohio's Open Meetings Act. These statutory laws are based on the notion that there should be "openness" in government, with public access to records and meetings and the conduct and activities of government.
Q: What records are public under Ohio's Public Records Act?
A: Generally speaking, a "public record" is a record held by a public office and is intended to include such things as paper, computer disks, film/videotape - that is, any item, regardless of its physical form, that is a stored or fixed medium.
Q: What is a public office?
A: The Public Records Act specifically defines a "public office" to include a "state agency, public institution, political subdivision, or any other organized body, office, agency, institution or entity established by the laws of this state for the exercise of any function of government." That is a broad definition, and has been applied to otherwise private entities that perform a public service and are supported by public funds.
Q: What are a person's rights under the Public Records Act?
A: Generally, a person's rights include the right to a prompt inspection of public records and, upon request, the right to copies of those public records within a reasonable period of time.
Q: Are there any exceptions under the Public Records Act?
A: Yes. The Act specifically identifies certain records, which are exempt, including medical records, trial preparation records, confidential law enforcement investigatory records and adoption records, among others.
Q: What is Ohio's "Open Meetings Act"?
A: This law essentially requires all public bodies to take all official actions and hold all deliberations on official business in meetings that are open to the public.
Q: Do public bodies have to keep minutes?
A: Yes. The public bodies have to keep full and accurate minutes in order to enable the public to understand and appreciate the rationale behind the public body's decisions. Those minutes are public records.
Q: Can a public body ever hold meetings in secret?
A: Yes. There are specified reasons for a public body to adjourn into what is called an "executive session," although the fact that the body is going into executive session must itself be part of a public meeting and proper protocols must be followed. These sessions are not open to the public. The reasons justifying an executive session include discussions about personnel matters, the purchase of property, pending or imminent court action, and collective bargaining.
Q: Does the media have any "special" rights under Ohio's "sunshine laws"?
A: Generally, no. The Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act apply equally to "all persons" under the law. The media enjoys no special rights under these sunshine laws except with regard to certain law enforcement identity records. The press tends to be vigilant about protecting people's rights under the sunshine laws. If access to records or meetings is denied, it is often the press that will commence "mandamus" actions in Ohio's courts to enforce rights under the sunshine laws (a "mandamus" court action asks a judge to "mandate" or order a government agency to make records or meetings open and public).
Q: Why does the media often times go to court about access issues under the sunshine laws?
A: There are a number of reasons why the press will file lawsuits seeking to enforce access rights under the sunshine laws. Clearly, access to records and meetings provide very important sources of information for the press in its newsgathering and information-gathering efforts. The workings of government are for the public and involve public dollars, public officials performing their job duties, and policies impacting all governed people. It is for those reasons that the media always has been the "fourth estate" in reviewing the work of government and keeping the public informed of its government's performance.
Q: Do the sunshine laws guarantee access to courtrooms?
A: No. Our rights to access to public courtrooms has generally evolved from interpretation of the constitutions of the United States and the State of Ohio as well as important case precedents handed down by the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Q: Are there any occasions when Ohioans do not have access to Ohio courtrooms?
A: Generally, our right of access to court proceedings is a well protected right and a courtroom can be closed only in very rare and unique circumstances, most often, proceedings involving juvenile delinquency.
Q: Are all courts equally accessible by citizens?
A: No. Juvenile courts are treated somewhat differently, and may restrict public access if, after hearing evidence and arguments, the juvenile court judge finds that there is a "reasonable and substantial" basis for believing that public access could harm the child or endanger the fairness of a judge's decision, and that the potential for harm outweighs the benefit of public access. Nevertheless, those who want a juvenile court proceeding to be closed must prove that an open proceeding would be harmful.
This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by Richard M. Goehler, and updated by Monica L. Dias of the Cincinnati office of Frost Brown Todd LLC.