The Civil Rights Clinic’s Public Records Project is well on its way to drafting a letter to the North Carolina Attorney General addressing the insufficient response format to a public records request in North Carolina
Currently, under North Carolina General Statutes, there is neither an established period in which the state must respond, nor a mandated response format. When a request is denied, North Carolina Statutes simply state a person who is denied access to public records may apply to the appropriate division of the General Court of Justice for an order compelling disclosure or copying.
The Public Records Project has implemented a research plan focusing on the North Carolina statute and the approaches of other states to address public records requests and responses. Currently, the Clinic has researched all 50 states’, and the District of Columbia’s public records statutes, classifying states as those with similar or comparable statutes, those with less stringent requirements than North Carolina, and those with more stringent requirements than North Carolina. The goal of the statutory research is to determine how other states have either improved or justified their disclosure method, as well as what North Carolina can do to improve its disclosure and response format to resemble that of the Federal Freedom Of Information Act, which requires a detailed index stating the specific exemption for those documents not disclosed known as a Vaughn Index. Though the Clinic’s Public Records Project is concerned predominantly with state law, the Federal Freedom of Information Act’s response format, the Vaughn Index, is a model the clinic is striving towards.
Research so far has shown severe ends of the spectrum. For example, while North Carolina provides no real substance on how a state agency is to format its denial to a public records request, Georgia requires that any decision to withhold all or part of a requested record shall be made known to the person requesting such documents, along with the specific legal authority exempting the requested record from disclosure by Code section, subsection, and paragraph within a reasonable amount of time, not to exceed three business days.
The Civil Rights Clinic’s next step is to delve into case law, Attorney General’s statements, and administrative rulings regarding public records request among all fifty states. The end goal for the Public Records Project is a letter to the North Carolina Attorney General seeking an opinion addressing the insufficient response requirements to a public records request, along with a proposal for a new standard for public records request responses. It is the hope of the Civil Rights Clinic that research will lead to improvements, not just within North Carolina, but to other states with similar or comparable statutes and those with less stringent requirements.
By Katie Webb