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1 To view this PDF as a projectable presentation, save the file, click View in the top menu bar of the file, and select Full Screen Mode To request an editable PPT version of this presentation, send a request to Your Right to Know: Exploring Open Government, Sunshine Laws, & the Freedom of Information Act

2 North Carolinas Sunshine Laws State sunshine laws are the laws in each state that govern public access to governmental meetings and records. These laws are sometimes known as open government laws, open records laws or public records laws, and are also collectively referred to as state level Freedom of Information Act laws. In North Carolina, there are two sunshine laws: 1.NC Open Meetings Law, § NC Public Records Law, § 132-1

3 NC Open Meetings Law, § The North Carolina Open Meetings Law states that all official meetings, hearings, deliberations, and actions of NCs governmental bodies are open to the public. The act defines government body as all political agencies of the state which exercise "legislative, policy making, quasi judicial, administrative, or advisory function". This includes meetings of the NC General Assembly, your local city council and board of county commissioners, school boards, etc. The act also explicitly includes all boards associated with state universities, all public and non-profit hospital boards and the standing committees and commissions of the NC legislature. Why is this law important? Who does this law impact and why? Do you think there are any circumstances when a governmental body does not have to have an open meeting? Explain.

4 NC Open Meetings Law, § There are exemptions to the law: For example, meetings that are social or informal assemblies, as well as meetings that deal with issues of confidentiality, are exempt. There are also exemptions to the definition of what constitutes a public body. Grand and petit juries, General Assembly caucuses, boards of trustees of endowment funds, the General Court of Justices, as well as any group directed by law to meet in a closed session, are examples of groups that are exempt. In order to legally hold a closed meeting, the public body must pass a motion at an open meeting, citing one or more of the permissible purposes (i.e. privileged or confidential material will be discussed.)

5 NC Open Meetings Law, § Do you think the school boards meeting in private to avoid controversy counts as an exempted meeting? Why or why not? In what circumstances might the School Board be allowed to meet in private? To meet in a closed session, what steps must the Board take? What types of actions can citizens take to hold a board accountable for an illegal meeting?

6 Any individual may bring charges against a public body for violation of the open meetings act in civil court. If the judge determines that the public body violated the open meetings act, he or she may void any action taken or discussed during the meeting in question if the suit was filed within 45 days of the disclosure of the violation. The court may also assess attorney fees to either party depending on the degree of violation and if the lawsuit was frivolous. The court may also compel individual public officials to pay the attorney fees, if they were specifically in flagrant violation of the law. NC Open Meetings Law, §

7 NC Public Records Law, § The North Carolina Public Records Law is designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies in North Carolina. Under the NC Public Records Law, all government records are to be made available to the public, with public records meaning all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, recordings, etc., made in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions. However, not everything the government writes down is a public record. Examples of some of the exceptions include: documents about criminal investigations; attorney-client privilege, court witnesses when their safety is threatened; the system information; tax records; emergency response plans; etc. 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.

8 What if you ask a government official for their records and they say no? Respectfully let them know that you are aware of the North Carolina law that gives you the right to see documents created by local and state government officials, as long as they are not classified as confidential or privileged. You might say something like this: "North Carolina's public records law, Chapter 132 of the General Statutes, provides for public inspection and copying of most records made or received by state or local governments and their subdivisions, regardless of the physical form of the record. If you contend that the document I have asked for is not a public record, please advise me of the specific statutory authority for that position." NC Public Records Law, § 132-1

9 What is the conflict in this scenario? Which of North Carolinas two sunshine laws is involved? Was a law broken in this scenario? Explain. 1. WITH YOUR GROUP, READ & DISCUSS THE SCENARIO PROVIDED TO YOU: 2. PREPARE A SHORT ROLL PLAY TO PRESENT TO THE CLASS THAT CONVEYS THE DETAILS OF THE SCENARIO. Your scenario must be presented in a serious fashion and contain all the details provided in the scenario so that the audience has all the information they need. Each group member must play a part. Your classmates will then discuss whether they think a sunshine law was violated or not. SUNSHINE LAW ROLE PLAYS

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11 READ THE QUOTE PROVIDED AND DISCUSS WITH YOUR PARTNER: What message is this quote conveying? What do you think this person would list as the most important qualities of an effective government and why? What reasons would this person give for arguing that open government is crucial for an effective democracy? Do you agree or disagree with this quote and why?

12 THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT (FOIA) FOIA is a federal law that law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966 and went into effect in (It was amended in 2002.) The law generally provides that any person has the right to request ac­cess to federal agency records or information. Why is it important that you be able to access federal government records/information? What impact do you think this law has on government officials? On citizens?

13 THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT (FOIA) Federal agencies are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request for them, except for those records that are protected from disclosure by any of the nine ex­emptions or three exclu­sions of the FOIA (i.e., issues of national security, privacy, etc.) The FOIA also requires that certain information be made available to the pub­lic on agency FOIA websites. The Executive Branch, led by the President, is responsible for the administration of the FOIA across the government. The Department of Justices Office of Information Policy oversees agency compliance with these directives and encourages all agencies to fully comply with the FOIA. If the federal government fails to provide access to the information, that decision can be challenged in federal court.

14 FOIA EXEMPTIONS 1.classified national defense and foreign relations information, 2.internal agency rules and practices, 3.information that is prohibited from disclosure by another law, 4.trade secrets and other confidential business information, 5.inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges, 6.information involving matters of personal privacy, 7.certain information compiled for law enforcement purposes, 8.information relating to the supervision of financial institutions, and 9.geological information on wells. There are also three exclusions to the law, which are rarely used, pertain to especially sensitive law enforcement and national security matters. Do you find these exemptions acceptable reasons to keep some govt. information confidential from the public? Explain.

15 THE PRIVACY ACT OF 1974 The Privacy Act of 1974 is another federal law regarding federal government records or information about individuals. The Privacy Act establishes certain controls over how executive branch agencies of the federal government gather, maintain, and disseminate personal information. The Privacy Act can also be used to obtain access to information, but it pertains only to records that federal agencies maintain about individual U.S. citizens and lawfully admitted permanent resident aliens. The FOIA, on the other hand, covers virtually all records in the possession and control of federal executive branch agencies.

16 Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not." ~Sen. Patrick Leahy, 1996

17 EXERCISING YOUR RIGHTS UNDER THE FIOA Under the FOIA, you may request and generally receive by mail a copy of any record that is in an agencys files that is not protected from disclosure by one of the exemptions or exclusions If the records you seek are about yourself, you may request them under both the FOIA and the Privacy Act of When you make a FOIA request you must describe the records that you seek as clearly and specifically as possible and comply with the agencys regulations for making requests. For requests that will require more than 10 days for the agency to process, the FOIA requires agencies to assign a tracking number to your request. Each agency must provide a telephone number or web site by which a requester can use the assigned tracking number to obtain information about the status of a pending request. Further, each agency is required to provide a Public Liaison to assist in the resolution of disputes between the requester and the agency. However, the FOIA does not require agencies to do research for you, analyze data, answer written questions, or in any other way create records in order to respond to your request.

18 Additionally, the FOIA requires that agencies make certain records available on the internet. (Before making a FOIA request, it is helpful to check the information on the agency website.) There is no single office of the federal government that handles all FOIA requests. Each FOIA request must be made to the particular agency that has the records that you seek. For example, if you want to know about an investigation of motor vehicle defects, write to the Department of Transportation. If you want information about a work-related accident at a nearby manufacturing plant, write to the Department of Labor (at its office in the region where the accident occurred). Most of the larger federal agencies have several FOIA offices. Some have one for each major bureau or component; others have one for each region of the country. EXERCISING YOUR RIGHTS UNDER THE FIOA

19 You may have to do a little research to find the proper agency office to handle your FOIA request, but you will save time in the long run if you send your request directly to the most appropriate office. For assistance, you can contact the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC) of the U.S. General Services Administration. The FCIC is specially prepared to help you find the right agency, office, and address. In order to make a FOIA request, simply write a letter to the appropriate agency. For the quickest possible handling, mark both your letter and the envelope Freedom of Information Act Request. You should identify the records that you seek as specifically as possible in order to increase the likelihood that the agency will be able to locate them. Any facts that you can furnish about the time, place, authors, events, subjects, and other details of the records should be included. EXERCISING YOUR RIGHTS UNDER THE FIOA

20 PUBLIC EDUCATION REGARDING OPEN GOVERNMENT & SUNSHINE LAWS In March 2009, Elon University conducted a poll of over 600 North Carolina residents regarding their knowledge of sunshine laws. Results showed that over half of North Carolinians – 63% – are unaware that state Sunshine Laws - rules for open meetings and access to government records – exist in North Carolina. Despite the lack of awareness, most citizens see the value of public access to records. Sixty- eight percent said this kind of access is very important, while 88 percent feel open records and meetings keep government operations honest.

21 Sixty-nine percent of respondents rejected the notion that closed records and meetings allow government to get things done more effectively. While the majority of citizens advocate for government transparency, 77 percent feel exceptions should be made if such action will aid the war on terrorism. More than half of respondents (52 percent) have attempted to gain access to public documents in the past. Of these individuals, 83 percent were successful in their efforts. PUBLIC EDUCATION REGARDING OPEN GOVERNMENT & SUNSHINE LAWS

22 SOURCES & ADDITIONAL INFORMATION SOURCES ADDITIONAL INFORMATION North Carolina Open Government Coalition: NCs Open Meetings Law: State Sunshine Laws: Sunshine Week: Department of Justice: Freedom of Information Act: Your Right to Federal Records: Freedom of Information Center: Your Right to Federal Records:


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