Public Records Are Not Always Accessible
Q: What, exactly, is considered to be a "public" record in Ohio?
A: A public record is just about any record kept by any branch of government within the state that "documents a public purpose." The record must be related to some official government function.
Q: When someone says, "It's a matter of public record," does this mean I can get a copy of any record kept by a branch of government within Ohio?
A: The law provides a way for anyone to have access to a vast array of information--about themselves, their neighbors, even strangers--without having to explain who you are, why you want the information or what you plan to do with it. Further, the law says that any person can have access to any public record at "all reasonable times during regular business hours," and that copies of public records must be made available "at cost."
There are, however, limits to what you can access. In fact, there are 24 exceptions within the open records law itself, and hundreds of other exemptions that can be found elsewhere in state law, granting confidentiality for everything from government agencies' trade secrets to the home addresses of state employees.
Q: What kind of items are in the list of exemptions?
A: They range from the simple, like medical and adoption records, to the complex, like "confidential law enforcement investigatory" records.
Q: What is the reasoning behind these exemptions?
A: Concern for personal privacy was the primary reason in some cases, like medical, adoption and abortion records. Public universities sought an exemption for "donor profile records" to protect personal information about people who donated to university foundations. Law enforcement agencies sought several exemptions to protect their unfinished investigations.
Q: I asked for a copy of a police report recently, and was asked to give my name and address and the reason I was requesting it. I thought anyone could get a public record with no questions asked.
A: Even though the law says anyone can have access to public records and does not require this information, some local governments ask or even require that the person seeking the records fill out a detailed form containing name, address, phone number, employer, purpose of the request and planned use of the record. Such a demand has no support in the law, however. Further, any agency that refuses access to a public record must supply a written answer, if requested, citing the statutory exception that permits withholding the record.
Q: How much can I expect to pay for copies of public records?
A: The law says government agencies must provide copies "at cost," but that cost will vary from one agency to another. Some police departments have been known to charge $5.00 per page in the belief that insurance agencies are paying the cost for accident records. While the Supreme Court of Ohio has not defined "actual cost," it has said that $1.00 per page is too much. Unless you are seeking a "certified" copy where the cost is set by statute, the cost should not exceed 25 cents per page.
Q: Can I request a public record by mail?
A: Yes. Public records are now available through the mail (expect to pay in advance, though) and available on a computer disk, if the original information is stored in computer files.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Timothy D. Smith, an attorney and a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University.