Rhode Island Freedom of Information Act
What is the Rhode Island Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) governs access to public records generated and maintained by government bodies within a specific jurisdiction. The law facilitates access to public records, allowing individuals to view and make copies of certain records that are not exempted from public access. The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act is the Freedom of Information Act that controls access to records in the custody of government agencies. While the law grants citizens the right to inspect and make copies of public records, it also protects certain records if their disclosure would constitute unwarranted invasion of personal privacy to the records’ subjects. The law was enacted in 1979 and is defined in Chapter 38.2 of the Rhode Island General Laws.
The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act was revised in 1991, 1998, and 2008. Besides the exemptions that were added to the law, the revisions expanded the range of information available to the public and increased fines on agencies that deliberately flout the provisions of the law. More significantly, the revisions also introduced the “balancing test,” which made it mandatory for public agencies to weigh the public interest in accessing records against the privacy interests of the persons named on the records. If the records’ subjects’ privacy interests outweigh the public’s interests, the records (or portions thereof) will be exempted from public disclosure.
What is Covered Under the Rhode Island Freedom of Information Act?
Based on the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act, public records include all forms of documents, materials, and recordings created or received under the law in relation to public agencies’ transactions of official businesses. Examples of such documents and recordings are books, letters, maps, papers, magnetic tapes, sound recordings, photographs, and films. Public records are also maintained in electronic formats like electronic data processing and computer-stored data (including electronic mail messages). However, electronic mail messages between elected officials and those they represent and correspondence relating to elected officials in their official capacities are not considered public records.
Public agencies refer to the state’s executive, legislative, judicial, regulatory, administrative bodies, or any political subdivision (including departments, divisions, agencies, commissions, boards, offices, and bureaus). Public agencies also include Rhode Island state or local governments’ agencies that exercise governmental functions or authority as defined in Section 42-35-1(b) of the Rhode Island General Laws or any other public or private entity representing a public agency.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Rhode Island?
The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act permits the exemption of certain records from public disclosure to protect the privacy rights of the persons named on the records under Section 38-2-2 of the Act. Some records that are exempt from the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act are:
- Trade secrets and financial or commercial information obtained from entities that are of confidential or privileged nature
- Reports and statements of strategy
- Child custody and adoption records, including records of illegitimate births and records of juvenile proceedings in Family Courts
- Technological and scientific secrets and the security plans of military and law enforcement agencies, which if disclosed would endanger public welfare and security
- Credit card account numbers disclosed to the state or local government
- Any documentary material, interrogatories, answers to written or oral testimony provided under any subpoena issued under Section 9-1.1-6 of the Rhode Island General Laws
- Documents prepared by school districts meant to protect the safety of their students from potential and actual threats
- Any individually identifiable evaluations of public school staff made under state or federal laws or regulations
- Law enforcement records
- Records that are not available by law or rule of court to an opposing party in litigation
- Tax returns
- Preliminary drafts, memoranda, notes, impressions, work products, and working papers. However, this does not include documents submitted at a public meeting of a public agency
- Reports and statements of strategy or negotiation pertaining to the investment or borrowing of public funds until when the transactions have been concluded
- Certain investigatory records of public bodies
- Requests for advisory opinions until the time the public body issues its opinion
- Records, reports, information, opinions, and statements required to be kept confidential by federal law or regulation or state law or rule of court
- Charitable donor information
- Collective bargaining
- Library records
- All records relating to client/attorney relationships and doctor/patient relationships, including all medical records relating to individuals in any files
How Do I File a Rhode Island Freedom of Information Act Request?
A Rhode Island resident can file a Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request by submitting a written request directly to the public agency in charge of the record they are interested in. A list of the website links of Rhode Island State Agencies is provided on the state’s website. The Rhode Island Department of State also provides a directory list of some of the most common agencies that receive APRA requests, examples of records in their custody, and links to their APRA request forms or instructions. A requester can visit the website of the public agency in charge of the record they seek to obtain and get information on how to submit the record request. While some of these agencies provide request forms on their websites, others require requesters to submit written requests. A written request should include the applicant’s details (name, address, and contact information) and a clear description of the requested record. Generally, agencies in the state accept in-person and mail-in submissions during business hours.
For instance, an applicant may access records in the custody of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) by contacting (401) 462-2121. The DHS provides a Public Records Request Form available online or through the DHS Office of Legal Counsel. Completed requests forms may be faxed to (401) 462-6594, emailed to DHS.Contact@dhs.ri.gov, or mailed to:
Department of Human Services
Louis Pasteur Building
Attention: Linda Shumate and Justine Fitzpatrick
25 Howard Avenue
Cranston, RI 02920
Records maintained by the Rhode Island Department of Health may be obtained by contacting (401) 222-1036. The department provides a Public Records Request Form available online or through the Office of Legal Counsel Requests for records. After completing the request form, an applicant can fax it to (401) 222-1797 or mail it to:
Rhode Island Department of Health
Attention: Pamela Lopes
Three Capitol Hill
Providence, RI 02908
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Rhode Island?
Section 38-2-4 of the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act stipulates that the cost of making copies of public records on common business or legal-size papers shall not exceed 15 cents per page. The law recommends that public agencies only charge a reasonable, actual cost for providing electronic records or retrieving records. Agencies cannot charge more than $15 per hour for search, redaction of necessary documents, and retrieval. No costs are to be charged for the first hour. When an individual submits a public record request, the public agency in control of the record shall provide details of the fees charged for search and retrieval.
The fee covering the search or retrieval of a public record may be reduced or waived if the agency determines that the requested record is in the public interest. This implies that the requested record is not primarily in the requester’s commercial interest but is more likely to significantly help the public understand the operations or activities of the government.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Rhode Island?
The Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act requires a public agency to respond to a public record request within 10 business days from the date they received the request. A request may require a longer time to process if it is voluminous or the agency experiences some difficulty in accessing the requested record. In such a case, the agency will notify the requester of the cause of the delay in writing and may extend the response time by an additional 10 business days. However, if an agency does not respond to a requester’s request within 10 days, it will be considered a denial and the public agency will need to provide the specific reasons for the denial. The agency will also need to indicate the procedures for appealing the denial. A requester has the right to file a review petition with the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office to contest a denied record request. The Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office address is as follows:
150 South Main Street
Providence, RI 02903
Phone: (401) 274-4400
A person denied access to public records may also initiate proceedings in the Superior Court of the county where the records are maintained.