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SPECIAL REPORT: North Carolina Open Records Laws

 Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) US Supreme Court (1916-39)
“What Publicity Can Do,” Harper’s Weekly (20 Dec 1913)

Justice Brandeis gave voice to an entire movement of citizens for decades to come who want to know more about the decisions made and the information used by their elected government officials.

That’s why WatchDogWire and the Franklin Center are participating as partners in Sunshine Week (March 10-16), a nationwide initiative focused on the importance of access to public information. We’ll be featuring articles and resources on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), state open records law, and other transparency efforts all week.

Today’s article focuses on the open records laws in the state of North Carolina.  A great resource for finding out information on public records in North Carolina, and ever other state is the website Sunshine Review.

Sunshine Review is about state and local government transparency, engaged citizens, and holding government officials accountable. The Sunshine Review wiki collects and shares information about state and local transparency using a 10-point Transparency Checklist to evaluate 6,000 state and local government websites. Sunshine Review is a non-profit that collaborates with individuals and organizations across America to promote state and local transparency.

The Sunshine Review defines public records in this way:

Public records refers to information that has been filed or recorded by public agencies, such as corporate and property records. Public records are created by the federal and local government, (vital records, immigration records, real estate records, driving records, criminal records, etc.) or by the individual. Public records can also be considered any mail or communication between state agencies and those in the legislature. Other sets of commonly demanded public records are those relating to financial documents for government programs. Availability is determined by federal, state, and local regulations.

Public records are held in physical files. Many public records are available via Internet or other sources; even though public records are indeed “public”, their accessibility is not always simple, free or easy. Some states such as California have separate policies that govern the availability of information contained in public records. The PRA or public records act states that “except for certain explicit exceptions, personal information maintained about an individual may not be disclosed without the person’s consent.”

In 1935, North Carolina passed one of the first open records statutes in the United States.  However, accessing those records as a citizen, and holding state government accountable to that law is much more difficult.

Features of the North Carolina Public Records Law:

Declared Legal Intention

The North Carolina’s statement of purpose indicates, “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law.”[6]

What records are covered?

Records include all documents, no matter the physical form, “made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency.” [7]


Notable exceptions include but are not limited to:

  • Attorney-client privilege
  • Tax records
  • Billing information for any services owned by local governments
  • Address confidentiality program[8]
  • controlled substances reporting
  • Admissions information for state universities
  • Trade secrets
  • Account numbers and signatures[9]
  • Telecommunications security
  • Law enforcement investigations [10]
  • 9-1-1 system information [11]
  • Emergency response plan [12]
  • Security information [13]
  • Autopsy photos [14]
  • Trial preparation materials [15]
  • Personal information including social security numbers [16]
  • Economic developments and incentives planning records[17]
  • Personal records of minors registered in any Parks and Recreation department [18]

North Carolina law also requires departments to separate exempt and non-exempt material when found in the same source, and release the non-exempt material upon request. [19]

For a citizen journalist, knowing how to use the NC Public Records Laws is essential and sometimes rather frustrating.

North Carolina law explicitly states that no individual making a request for records will be required to state a purpose. The act does not restrict the use of records as well.  So, under the NC law “any person” may request public records and they are to be open for inspection.

The state does establish two different types of records with two different fees. For un-certified copies, the department may charge only the actual cost of duplication not including the labor involved. However, if the search is expansive and requires a great deal of staff time, an additional special fee may be charged. The law indicates that fees for certified copies will be as indicated by law but does not indicate what law.

There are many tools to file a public records request, but one that the Franklin Center finds particularly user-friendly is the FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) Letter Generator template used by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  This tool allows for FOIA letter requests to be written by citizens to all levels of local government.

Watchdog Wire also has many more helpful tips on becoming an effective and impactful citizen journalist in North Carolina.  If you need help getting started as a citizen watchdog in North Carolina, please email me directly at NorthCarolina@WatchdogWire.com.  To start reporting for Watchdog Wire – North Carolina, sign up here!


Bruce Carroll

Bruce has his own blog, GayPatriot.org and is active on Twitter as @GayPatriot. Bruce lives near Charlotte, NC and enjoys country music and his three dogs.

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Categories: Government Transparency
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