Public records are documents made by a government agency that are required to be kept and maintained.
Reporters love them. They form the backbones of many news stories. A reporter’s pay can be based on drumming up stories, so public records are of great value. Watch the newsroom waters churn when juicy public records are thrown in. Political scandal, big names, big money, controversy, sex, or violence: Hold on to your boat; those fish bite hard, man!
Reporters can do whole stories based on public records. An example: a psychiatrist gets his license revoked by the state for having sex with a patient. Oh, that’s a good one. Hold the press! Translate the legalese into everyday English, get a couple of comments from participants, and it might be on the front page the next day.
Phrases in news stories like “unnamed sources,” “it was reported,” and “some people say” just can’t compare to the black and white of a mug shot, lawsuit, or a mayor’s emails - all public records.
Attorneys love public records, too. They can be a primary source of evidence. Peruse any lawsuit and you will see attorneys demanding the other side produce documents. The code language of attorneys, Latin, even has a phrase for demanding documents: “subpoena duces tecum,” which means “a command for a witness to appear in court and produce documents.” As soon as the documents are entered into the court file, they become a public record.
Private investigators also love public records. They are an essential element of some investigative agencies. By checking public records alone, an investigator can find criminal histories, lawsuits, property, habits, whereabouts, affiliations, reputation, or character of his target.
Some legislators hate them - apparently. They dream up legislation to hide public records. They’re constantly proposing “iron walls” to whittle away citizens’ right to public records.
This week you will see newspapers across the country pointing out laws and bills that restrict access to public records. But reporters, attorneys, and private investigators do not have a monopoly on public records.
There’s a reason they are called “public records.” They are yours, paid for by your tax dollars. Court records, property records, the emails of your local mayor - the list goes on. Just dream up the record you’d like to obtain. If you don’t know whether it exists, just ask the city, county, state, or federal agency for it.
If a government agency withholds a public record, it is their responsibility to tell you why.
Good luck to you in your research.
Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of the importance of open and transparent government as well as a nationwide celebration of access to public information and public records, started Sunday and runs through Friday. To learn more, go to sunshineweek.org.