U.S. State Access Laws Evaluated in New Study

6 August 2012

Connecticut is ranked first and South Carolina last in a new evaluation of state access laws in the United States.

The survey of the laws and their effectiveness was done by local reporters using an evaluation scheme prepared by State Integrity, a nongovernmental organization.

“In state after state, the laws are riddled with exemptions and loopholes that often impede the public’s right to know rather than improve upon it,” according to researcher Caitlin Ginley, as quoted by in a blog post by staffer Mike Mullen.

Connecticut ranked first with an 89 percent ‘B+’ grade.

South Carolina ranked 50th with a 22 percent ‘F’ grade. The state was faulted for a weak legal structure, including high costs charged to requestors and the absence of a formal appeals process except through suing the state.

The survey is part of a $1.5 million effort to measure anti-corruption efforts. Experienced journalists in each state graded state governments using 330 specific measures. Each state received a report card with letter grades in 14 categories, including campaign finance, ethics laws, lobbying regulations, and management of state pension funds. For more on the methodology.

To see a chart and map showing the results in the Public Access to Information category, along with the states’ overall grades. Click through the states for more information, including reporter comments and sources

The 10 Questions, and Answers

1: In law, citizens have a right of access to government information and basic government records.

Yes:  A YES score is earned if there is a formal right to access government documents, including constitutional guarantees. Exceptions can be made for national security reasons or individual privacy, but they should be limited in scope. All other government documents should be available upon a public request.

No: A NO score is earned if there is no such right.

2: In law, citizens have a right of appeal if access to a basic government record is denied.

Yes: A YES score is earned if there is a formal process of appeal for rejected information requests. A YES score can still be earned if the appeals process involves redress through the courts rather than administrative appeal.

No: A NO score is earned if there is no such formal process.

3: In law, there is an established institutional mechanism through which citizens can request government records.

Yes: A YES score is earned if there is a formal government mechanism/institution through which citizens can access government records available under freedom of information laws. This mechanism could be a government office (or offices within agencies) or an electronic request system.

No: A NO score is earned if there is no such formal mechanism or institution.

4: In law, there is an agency or entity that monitors the application of access to information laws and regulations.

Yes: A YES score is earned if there is an agency or set of agencies/entities formally assigned to monitor and enforce laws and regulations around requests for information.

No: A NO score is earned if there is no such agency or entity.

5: In practice, state agencies and government officials are not exempt from access to information laws.

Very Strong: No state agencies and/or government officials are exempt from coverage under the state’s access to information laws.

Fair: Some agencies and/or government officials may be exempt from access to information laws, including key offices.

Very Weak: Exemptions are common and consistently make it difficult for citizens to access information under state freedom of information laws.

6: In practice, citizens receive responses to access to information requests within a reasonable time period.

Very Strong: Records are readily available or accessible online. Records are uniformly available; there are no delays for politically sensitive information. Rare exceptions are allowed for sensitive national security-related information for cases as defined in law.

Fair: Records may take up to one month to obtain. Some additional delays may be experienced. Politically-sensitive information may be withheld without sufficient justification.

Very Weak: Records take more than one month to acquire. In some cases, records may be available sooner, but there may be persistent delays in obtaining politically sensitive records. National security exemptions may be abused to avoid disclosure of government information.

7: In practice, citizens can use the access to information mechanism at a reasonable cost.

Very Strong: Records are free to all citizens, or available for the cost of photocopying. Records can be obtained at little cost, such as by mail or online.

Fair: Records impose a financial burden on citizens, journalists, or civil society organizations (CSOs). Retrieving records may require a visit to a specific office, such as the state capitol.

Very Weak: Retrieving records imposes a major financial burden on citizens. Records costs are prohibitive to most citizens, journalists, or CSOs trying to access this information.

8: In practice, responses to information requests are of high quality.

Very Strong: Responses to information requests typically address the requester’s questions in full and are not redacted or edited to remove sensitive information.

Fair: Information requests are sometimes met with sufficient responses, but responses to information requests may be vague or overly general when sensitive information is sought.

Very Weak: The government rarely or never replies to information requests with meaningful responses. If and when responses are issued, they are so overly general or heavily redacted as to render them useless.

9: In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to access to information requests within a reasonable time period.

Very Strong: The agency/entity acts on appeals quickly. While some backlog is expected and inevitable, appeals are acknowledged promptly and cases move steadily towards resolution.

Fair: The agency/entity acts on appeals quickly but with some exceptions. Some appeals may not be acknowledged, and simple issues may take more than two months to resolve.

Very Weak: The agency/entity does not resolve appeals in a timely fashion. Appeals may be unacknowledged for many months and simple issues may take more than three months to resolve.

10: In practice, citizens can resolve appeals to information requests at a reasonable cost.

Very Strong: In most cases, the appeals mechanism is an affordable option to middle class citizens seeking to challenge an access to information determination.

Fair: In some cases, the appeals mechanism is not an affordable option to middle class citizens seeking to challenge an access to information determination.

Very Weak: The prohibitive cost of utilizing the appeals mechanism prevents middle class citizens from challenging access to information determinations.

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