Article: Free Public Records versus Open Public Records

A question that is often asked by a person starting out searching for information is "Are public records free?"

The answer is both yes and no. As some public information is free, but, they do not have to be. Open public and meetings laws have provisions for making the information available, however, not necessarily free. There can be legislation as to the costs associated with providing record not to be prohibitive, excessive, unreasonable and so forth. There are costs associated with recording, maintaining and providing public records regardless of where they may be, therefore, the expenses have to be recovered somehow. This is a service provided by agencies which impose fees to relieve their budgets from additional restraints. The funds to run such operations can come from the city's tax revenues or fees from requestors. In many cases city managers prefer passing the expenses on to the requestor rather than their tax base. These fees in most cases are minimal and only help to recover some costs, so both are being implemented. The federal government spent $13 billion dollars to collect the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data.

How do we know what is classified as public record or not? Specifically, this is debated and legislation is drawn on a constant basis in regard to this issue. The constant battle is whether a certain record is to be opened to public's view, inspection and requests. These matters tend to enter gray areas between privacy, confidentiality and access.

Recorded documents such as vital records, statistics, court files, salaries county and city clerks and from individual agencies, are usually readily available with a small fee. This does not pertain to the ease of availability. Of late, legislation has been passed in regard to government agencies having a person in charge as a public information officer for that department lessening the run around from personnel to personnel by residents. Records must be available to the public, but the ease of retrieval is a different issue. Persistence and broad research from individuals researching can greatly pay off. If you simply order a background check from the state police or FBI, chances are you will not obtain arrest information, other incidents that occurred and data you may find in news wires. Individual law enforcement sites are a good example having current warrant, detainees arrested, press and accident reports available to the public. Freedom of information laws vary from state to state and as a result so do the records. Oklahoma and Wisconsin are two examples of states where the courts have case searches online for the public to retrieve instantly without any fees. Other areas you may be looking can have different policies and procedures. Other than citizens, various groups, attorneys and news agencies are amongst the most common to challenge the agencies and hold a hearing or file lawsuits expanding open public records' coverage.