The Texas Public Information Act

"It is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times, to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. ... This chapter shall be liberally construed in favor of grant-ing a request for information." -- Texas Government Code, Chapter 552

Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, also known as the Public Information or Open Records law, gives citizens a window into the working of the government for which they pay. Texas' public information law is considered one of the best in the nation, and is invaluable to anyone seeking to influence public policy or expose insider dealings. The law is especially useful to activists and journalists, who use it to monitor where the money goes, who's influencing whom, and whether politicians' words match up with their actions.

What's Covered

The law specifically enumerates 18 types of governmental records classified as public records (including completed audits, votes cast during governmental proceedings, contract information, etc.), but specifically does not limit open records to those 18.

What's Exempt

Forty different exceptions are specified in the law, including litigation or settlement negotiations involving the state, information related to competition or bidding, and even educational test items (presumably in response to the clever college students some years back who attempted to obtain the answers to an upcoming exam under an open records request).

Who May Request Info

Anyone may request public information, although governmental bodies are not required to respond to requests from prisoners (see below). Public information officers may not ask why information is sought -- they may ask only for identification.

The Courts

Chapter 552 does not apply to the judiciary, which is governed by the rules of the Texas Supreme Court.

Deadlines

Contrary to popular belief (even among many agencies' public information officers), governmental bodies do not have 10 days to respond to a records request -- the law stipulates that they must "promptly" provide requested documents, unless they are unavailable or in use at the time of the request. (By contrast, under U.S. law, federal agencies have 20 business days to respond and can extend that period for 10 additional days, with notice.) However, if the governmental body believes it has reason to withhold information, it has 10 (business) days to request an attorney general's opinion. If it does not do so within that time, it must immediately hand over the information. The AG must issue a decision within 45 days, which may be extended another 10 days.

Penalties

Destruction of public information is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $25-$4,000 and/or three days' to three months' jail time; distribution of confidential information is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail; a public information officer who fails or refuses to provide public information commits a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 and/or up to six months in jail.

Prisoners

Governmental bodies are not required to respond to open records requests from prisoners. (However, most information about a prisoner -- identity, offense, release date, etc. -- is public.)

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