About the Brechner Center

"The Brechner Center is an invaluable, hands-on resource not only for working journalists -- but for future journalists, as well. For my journalism courses at the University of Miami, I copy large sections of Brechner's A Citizen's Guide to Government in the Sunshine for students, and heavily cite the Guide's contents while lecturing on the importance of Florida's Public Records Law."

Ronnie Greene,
Veteran investigative reporter & Urban Affairs Editor, The Miami Herald
Adjunct Professor of Journalism, University of Miami

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Public Records

1. What is the Public Records Law?

2. Do I have the right to look at public records?

3. Which agencies’ records are open to the public?

4. Do I have a right to view computerized records?

5. Are there exemptions to the Public Records Law?

6. Which government bodies are subject to the Public Records Law?

7. How can I get access to Public Records?

8. What if a portion of the material requested in a public record is exempt from disclosure?

9. Can I be charged for a public record?

10. Where can I find a sample Public Records Request letter?

 

1. What is the Public Records Law?
The Public Records Law is outlined in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. This companion to the Sunshine Law requires that all governmental records be open for public inspection and copying unless these is a specific exemption approved by the state Legislature. The Public Records Law allows citizens to look at reports of crime in their areas or the professional backgrounds of the people teaching their children. Citizens can evaluate how much is being spent on emergency services at the local public hospital or how much state employees are getting paid. In addition to being able to attend government meetings and review public records, citizens may attend most judicial proceedings in Florida and review many of the documents that are filed in court proceedings. State and federal courts have ruled that criminal and civil trials and hearings generally should be open to the public, along with any documents that are filed and transcripts of those proceedings.
• View the Florida regulations on records management

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2. Do I have the right to look at public records?
The Florida Public Records Law is outlined in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes and gives the public access to public records. Public records are defined as “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, data processing software or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission,” made or received in connection with government agency business. The Florida Supreme Court has interpreted this definition to encompass all material prepared to “perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge.”
Florida Public Records Law, Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes
The Report of the Florida Supreme Court on Public Records
Florida Constitution chapter on privacy and public records

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3. Which agencies’ records are open to the public?
When officials circulate material for review, comment or information, the material is a public record. Records of advisory bodies, private organizations or independent contractors acting as agents of government agencies are public unless covered by a specific exemption.

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4. Do I have a right to view computerized records?
In 1995, Florida amended its definition of a public record to specifically include computer records and data processing software. Even e-mail messages made or received in connection with official business are public records. The statute says that automation of public records must not erode the public’s right of access. Therefore, computerized records are governed by the same rule as paper documents. Agencies must provide a copy of public records in the medium requests if the agency maintains the record in that medium. However, an agency is not required to create a new record to meet a requester’s particular needs.

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5. Are there exemptions to the Public Records Law?
Before denying access, a public records custodian must specifically state, in writing if requested, which part of the law exempts a record. There are more than 850 separate records exempted from the Public Records Law. For a list of examples see A Citizen’s Guide, page 14.
2001 Florida Senate Interim Project Report on Public Records exemptions

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6. Which government bodies are subject to the Public Records Law?
All units of state, county and local government are subject to the Public Records Law, as are advisory bodies, private organization or independent contractors acting on behalf of any public agency. However, neither public funding nor a government contract automatically makes a private organization subject to the law. The Florida Supreme Court developed a “totality of factors” approach as a guide for evaluating whether a private entity is subject to the Public Records Law.

CASE IN POINT: In 1990, a baseball team and a Florida city both violated a state public records act and were both responsible for attorney's fees and costs in a publisher's suit because the city improperly delegated its record keeping functions to the team in secret negotiations. Times Pub. Co. v. St. Petersburg, Case Nos. 88-02240, 88-02241, Court of Appeal of Florida, Second District, 558 So. 2d 487; 1990 Fla. App.

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7. How can I get access to Public Records?
The Florida Public Records Law states that any person can inspect and copy public records. An individual does not need to state a purpose or special interest to obtain access to a record and does not need to present identification.
First, identify the agency holding the record and the person within that agency who is the records custodian. Second, make the request for the public record as specific as possible. Although a verbal request is sufficient, a written request is often more effective.
Sample public records request letter
• Links to government record databases online

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8. What if a portion of the material requested in a public record is exempt from disclosure?
When a portion of the material requested is exempt from disclosure, a records custodian must provide the non-exempt material. For example, event thought the name of the victim of a sexual assault is exempt from disclosure, the police report itself is not. Once the identifying material is removed, the report must be released.

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9. Can I be charged for a public record?
If you want a copy of a record, the custodian may charge only the actual cost of duplication. The law allows the records custodian to charge higher fees for certain records and when requests require extensive assistance.
• For an example of a fee associated with a request for public records, visit the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

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10. Where can I find a sample Public Records Request letter?

A sample public records request letter is provided by the Brechner Center.