Your Right to Know

In 2008, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a new “Right-to-Know Law,”making significant changes to prior law relating to the public’s right to obtain and review government records.

  The old law consisted of only four sections.  The new law is lengthy and complex.  Among other changes, the new law presumes that an agency’s record is a “public record”, subject to access by the public.  Therefore, if an agency does not wish to disclose a document to the public, it has the burden of proving that document is not a public record subject to disclosure.

There are numerous exemptions to the agency’s duty to disclose agency records which are listed in the Right-to-Know Law.  These include deliberations of an agency by which policies are formulated, certain investigations by an agency, both criminal and civil, certain personal privacy exceptions (relating to the personal security of an individual), and certain “privileged” documents (for example, documents protected by attorney-client privilege).

The Right-to-Know Law creates a new Office of Open Records which is given the authority to make regulations, give certain advisory opinions and decide appeals from actions by local agencies denying individuals access to records.  With regard to appeals, note that decisions of the Office of Open Records are not necessarily the last word, as those decisions in turn, may be appealed in the court system.

While the new law was intended to clarify the process of obtaining public records from an agency, many issues remain unresolved.  In addition, the new law has put a much greater burden on government agencies, and particularly local governments and their staffs, to respond promptly to increasing numbers of document requests sometimes seeking large volumes of documents.

The legislature is currently considering amendments to the 2008 law to address problems that have arisen under it, and we expect to see more changes to the law in the future.

— Stu Cohen


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