Right to Know Information
Related Pages: Open Meeting & Conflict of Interest laws
Right to Know Laws
Both the state and federal government have adopted “Right to Know” laws to enable the public to acquire information about the operation of their government. As noted on bulletins from the Massachusetts Public Records Division, “access to public records ensures public involvement, and participation and provides a mechanism for holding government accountable for its decisions and actions.”
The federal right to know law is called the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The state Right-to-Know law is called the Massachusetts Public Records Law. Federal agencies only have to comply with the provisions of the FOIA. State, municipal, and county government only have to comply with the provisions of the Massachusetts Public Records Law.
Federal Freedom of Information Act Law
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides the public with access to all “agency records,” except those that are specifically exempted. It applies only to agencies of the federal government. Agency records have interpreted it to mean printed documents, computer files, data bases, photographs, and other government records. The documents must already exist, and be in possession of the agency you have contacted.
A federal agency can refuse to release certain types of information if it falls into one of nine legal categories. These exemptions include 1) information threatening national security, 2) internal agency rules, 3) information specifically exempted by other statutes, 4) certain business information like trade secrets, 5) internal government memos, 6) private matters and personal files, 7) information on law enforcement investigations (exempted only if it interfere with enforcement proceedings or deprive a person of the right to a fair trial, or is an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy), 8) regulation of financial institutions, and 9) oil well locations.
An agency has ten working days to decide whether it will comply with a FOIA request and to inform the person making the request of its decision and of the person’s right to appeal a refusal. An agency may take an additional ten days to respond if the agency indicates it must process a large volume of records, or it has to consult other agencies to satisfy a request.
You will be charged fees for a FOIA Request. These costs could include the costs of searching for the documents, the costs of reviewing the documents to determine if they comply with your request, and the costs of duplicating the documents. Your actual costs will depend on whether the request is for commercial use, educational purposes, or private use. Sometimes agencies waive the fee.
Your request must be sent to the agency that has the information you seek. You must “reasonably describe” the records, but you get the best response if you precisely and accurately describe the records you seek. You do not have to explain why you want the information. An agency may contact you if it needs to clarify your request.
A good “how-to” website for the FOIA: The Freedom of Information Act: A Practical User’s Guide
Making a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law
The Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10) is very similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act. It applies only to state agencies, municipalities, and legal subdivisions of the Commonwealth, such as the Cape Cod Commission, regional planning agencies, like SRPEDD, and state authorities. Details of the law are provided in the last section of this page. Like the FOIA, you can ask for copies of any documents considered public that are held by municipalities, county government, or state government.
The Secretary of the Commonwealth notes that a public records request can be made verbally in person, but it is best to put the request in writing, so there is no confusion about what information you seek, and to create a record if you seek to appeal an inadequate response. There is no specific format required under the Public Records Law, but the format below will effectively communicate your request and help ensure a timely response.
City, State, Zip Code
Date request mailed
Agency Head or records holder
Name of Agency
Address of Agency
City, State, Zip Code
Re: Massachusetts Public Records Request
This is a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10).
I am requesting that I be provided a copy of the following documents:
[detailed description of reports, data files, or information you seek.]
(Note: To reduce copying charges for large volumes of material, you can request the documents on a computer CD if they exist as computer data files).
[Optional: I recognize that you may charge reasonable costs for photocopies, computer disks, or personnel time to comply with this request. If you expect charges exceed $XX, please contact me regarding this request. Do this if you have a broad request and you want to limit costs and reduce the scope of your request. Generally you will be notified if your request will exceed $10.]
As you are aware, I must be provided with this information within 10 days. If you cannot comply with my request, please provide an explanation in writing.
Telephone Number [Optional]
Mark your envelope: “Attention: Massachusetts Public Records Request.” You could also send the letter with a postal service return receipt.
If you do not receive the information in a timely manner, or the official refuses to provide the information, the Secretary of the Commonwealth notes: “A failure to respond within the allotted time period, or a denial in writing from the custodian, allows a requester to appeal to the Supervisor of Public Records. In order to appeal to the Supervisor, you must send a copy of your request letter, with copies of any correspondence provided by the custodian within ninety (90) days. An administrative appeal will then be opened. If the Supervisor determines that the records are public, he or she may order the custodian to provide the records, if necessary. ” The address of the Supervisor of Public Records is
Supervisor of Public Records
Office of the State Secretary
McCormack Building, Room 1719
One Ashburton Place
Boston, MA 02108
Telephone: (617) 727-2832
Fax: (617) 727-5914
The Secretary of the Commonwealth website on the Massachusetts Public Records Law:
Massachusetts Public Records Law (M. G. L. Chapter 66, Section 10)
The requirements of the Massachusetts Public Records Law is defined in MGL Chapter 66, Section 10. The definitions of what constitutes public records, and exemptions to the law, are listed in MGL Chapter 4, Section 7, part 26. The key points are as follows:
Twenty-sixth, “”Public records” shall mean all books, papers, maps, photographs, recorded tapes, financial statements, statistical tabulations, or other documentary materials or data, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by any officer or employee of any agency, executive office, department, board, commission, bureau, division or authority of the commonwealth, or of any political subdivision thereof, or of any authority established by the general court to serve a public purpose, unless such materials or data fall within the following exemptions in that they are:
(a) specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute;
Click here for a partial list of statute exemptions.
(b) related solely to internal personnel rules and practices of the government unit, provided however, that such records shall be withheld only to the extent that proper performance of necessary governmental functions requires such withholding;
(c) personnel and medical files or information; also any other materials or data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
(d) inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters relating to policy positions being developed by the agency; but this subclause shall not apply to reasonably completed factual studies or reports on which the development of such policy positions has been or may be based;
(e) notebooks and other materials prepared by an employee of the commonwealth which are personal to him and not maintained as part of the files of the governmental unit;
(f) investigatory materials necessarily compiled out of the public view by law enforcement or other investigatory officials the disclosure of which materials would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest;
(g) trade secrets or commercial or financial information voluntarily provided to an agency for use in developing governmental policy and upon a promise of confidentiality; but this subclause shall not apply to information submitted as required by law or as a condition of receiving a governmental contract or other benefit;
(h) proposals and bids to enter into any contract or agreement until the time for the opening of bids in the case of proposals or bids to be opened publicly, and until the time for the receipt of bids or proposals has expired in all other cases; and inter-agency or intra-agency communications made in connection with an evaluation process for reviewing bids or proposals, prior to a decision to enter into negotiations with or to award a contract to, a particular person;
(i) appraisals of real property acquired or to be acquired until (1) a final agreement is entered into; or (2) any litigation relative to such appraisal has been terminated; or (3) the time within which to commence such litigation has expired;
(j) the names and addresses of any persons contained in, or referred to in, any applications for any licenses to carry or possess firearms issued pursuant to chapter one hundred and forty or any firearms identification cards issued pursuant to said chapter one hundred and forty and the names and addresses on sales or transfers of any firearms, rifles, shotguns, or machine guns or ammunition therefor, as defined in said chapter one hundred and forty and the names and addresses on said licenses or cards;
[There is no subclause (k).]
(l) questions and answers, scoring keys and sheets and other materials used to develop, administer or score a test, examination or assessment instrument; provided, however, that such materials are intended to be used for another test, examination or assessment instrument;
(m) contracts for hospital or related health care services between (i) any hospital, clinic or other health care facility operated by a unit of state, county or municipal government and (ii) a health maintenance organization arrangement approved under chapter one hundred and seventy-six I, a nonprofit hospital service corporation or medical service corporation organized pursuant to chapter one hundred and seventy-six A and chapter one hundred and seventy-six B, respectively, a health insurance corporation licensed under chapter one hundred and seventy-five or any legal entity that is self insured and provides health care benefits to its employees.
(n) records, including, but not limited to, blueprints, plans, policies, procedures and schematic drawings, which relate to internal layout and structural elements, security measures, emergency preparedness, threat or vulnerability assessments, or any other records relating to the security or safety of persons or buildings, structures, facilities, utilities, transportation or other infrastructure located within the commonwealth, the disclosure of which, in the reasonable judgment of the record custodian, subject to review by the supervisor of public records under subsection (b) of section 10 of chapter 66, is likely to jeopardize public safety.
Any person denied access to public records may pursue the remedy provided for in section ten of chapter sixty-six.
All the information you need about the Massachusetts Public Records Laws can be found at the Secretary of the Commonwealth Website Secretary of the Commonwealth Public records Law website, and in the document:
Executive Branch websites on the Public Records Law include these: