RI Bill Will Strengthen Citizens' FOI Rights

After passing state bill H7422 last week, Rhode Island is set to join the growing list of states – including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Oregon – that have strengthened their freedom of information laws in the past year. The bill, which contains several reforms of the state's open records practices, awaits only Governor Don Carcieri's signature before it will come into law.

From a citizen media perspective, the bill's most useful upgrade of Rhode Island's existing FOI law is that it will bar agencies from requiring that requestors provide personally identifiable information or specific reasons for their request. If passed, these provisions will help prevent agencies from denying open records requests based upon the characteristics of the individual requestor. For instance, it would be more difficult for an agency to refuse an open records request from a citizen speaker who has been known to criticize the state government.

The bill offers several other reforms, including:

  • A requirement that agencies grant or deny a request within seven days, a decrease from the original 10-day requirement. However, an agency may extend the deadline to a maximum of 20 days (formerly 30) if it asserts in writing that the request otherwise would be unduly burdensome;

  • A requirement that an agency waive all copying and search fees if it fails to produce requested records in a timely manner;

  • An increase of the maximum fine that may be imposed upon agencies and officials for violating the open records law from $1,000 to $5,000, plus a new provision for up to $2,000 in additional fines if an agency or official "recklessly" violates the law;

  • A requirement that each state agency annually certify in writing that it has provided open-records orientation and training to all officers and employees who have the authority to grant or deny access to state records;

  • A requirement that the police records from an arrest of an adult must be made public within 24 hours after the arrest; and

  • Clarification that police officers' narrative accounts of arrests are public records.

Under Rhode Island law, Governor Carcieri has six days to sign or veto the bill. If he does neither, the bill will come into law without his signature. The bill would take effect on Sept. 1, 2008.

(Matt C. Sanchez is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and the CMLP's Legal Threats Editor.)

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