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Open public record and meeting statutes, sunshine laws, freedom of information act are just a few ways to describe the same thing, the right to request and obtain copies from the government. Although the federal government was not the first to face transparency issues, when the federal freedom of information act passed, many states modeled their laws after the federal government's.
As states pass their own public records and open meetings laws, some are more favorable toward transparency and others privacy. However, these statutes are amended to meet new technologies for methods of obtaining information. An example of this scenario is when there were debate regarding government employee emails and whether this type of information is subject to disclosure.
Statutes are now better in tune with technology. There have been many statutes passed in recent years to better serve the public's need, specially when there's an investigation into a government department. The California Public Records Act (CPRA) was passed 1968 by the state's voters and more recently proposition 59 in 2004. Groups, organizations and concerned citizens feel that open records promotes government accountability. These laws have many agencies appointing a public information officer in charge of requests.
When requestors believe that the agency is in violation of public record laws, they go to court. Many of these cases set a precedence for related upcoming issues. There are many gray areas, but the public information officers role is not to determine whether or not open records laws apply.
Here are a few organizations: National Freedom of Information Coalition, First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael, Californians Aware in Carmichael, CA, First Amendment Project.
How much can be found out from public records? The most accurate answer will come from you conducting a search of your own records, or hiring a professional to do so. Conducting a search on ourselves gives us the advantage of not looking for records, such as a criminal history, when we're well aware that they will come back blank, so no need to bother and waste money. However, don't be easily fooled into getting too comfortable, this is a only minor set back, not to mention that the person searching may be better skilled in finding records than you are.
Do we know all the information out there about you? You will have few of your peers say "Well, you already know all the information about yourself out there, what are you looking for?". Not necessarily! Self background checks are conducted for just that reason. Many conducting a check on themselves, whether on their own at home from a computer or a hired service, are surprised at the amount of information that's out there. Even after tireless efforts being made fighting identity theft, a wealth of information is still readily available. On one side you have privacy protections and on other side the people's right to access public records.
When does the right to public records interfere with individual privacy? Individual privacy excludes companies and public entities as they do not have the same protections. Privacy and the right to access public records do cross each other's paths. Financial information is protected but bankruptcy filings can be requested from the courts, is everything within the record open to the public? Can the public see assets listed within a divorce case file? There are a multitude of questions in regard to privacy, and cases should be looked at individually. Adding to the problem is erroneous information about you that's out there.
What are my options? Each individual's case can be different and there is no single quick answer for everyone. The information available can vary greatly from one person to another. However, there are tips which can be helpful to the average person. Begin with conducting a fishing expedition of your own records of anything and everything which may possibly contain your name, tel. number, address, business/company, affiliations/association with others and social networks. Remember that information about you can be in places where you'd never imagine. Are you skilled in looking and finding records? If not, hire private services for a better thorough job.