Federal, state, and local governments often act through agencies, boards, committees, and other government "bodies." The most familiar examples of these kinds of government bodies are found at the local level -- they include school boards, city councils, boards of county commissioners, zoning and planning commissions, police review boards, and boards of library trustees. At the state level, examples include state environmental commissions, labor boards, housing boards, and tax commissions, to name a few. The executive branch of the federal government carries out its business through a number of agencies, many of which are governed by multi-member boards of directors or commissioners. Examples include the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, and the Federal Housing Finance Board. A common feature of these agencies, boards, commissions, and other government bodies is that they meet as groups to deliberate or take action on public business. For instance, town zoning boards pass new zoning regulations and approve site plans, and state labor boards adopt workplace safety rules.
Public access to these meetings is governed by a category of laws called open meetings laws. These important laws give anyone, including members of the traditional and non-traditional press, the ability to scrutinize and report first-hand on government meetings. They give you the right to attend the meetings of most federal, state, and local government bodies and to receive reasonable notice of those meetings. In many instances, they also entitle you to obtain copies of minutes, transcripts, or recordings at low cost. Open meetings laws thus open up a range of possibilities for fact-gathering and investigative reporting about the workings of government at every level. For example, they give you the right to attend the meeting in which the city council adopts its annual budget, the local school board discusses the curriculum, the state environmental board decides how to fight air pollution, or the FCC deliberates about network neutrality regulations. (You can multiply these examples hundred-fold.) And if you miss an important meeting, you can consult minutes or transcripts to catch up on what took place.
Open meetings laws will be especially useful to you if you want to take your publishing activities beyond commenting on material from other online sources. They can help you move into original reporting and enable you to comment in an informed fashion on local and national debates. You might even do a periodic post or column on meetings of particular interest to your website or blog. For example, the Gotham Gazette, an independent news site that covers "New York City News and Policy," has an entire section of its site focusing on city government, which is largely based on slated meetings of the New York City Council.
While both state and federal open meetings laws provide invaluable access to the actual workings of government, there are a number of challenges to effectively using these laws. For one thing, state open meetings laws are complex. They make use of complicated legal terminology to define what government bodies are covered and what kinds of gatherings qualify as a "meeting." Even more importantly, both federal and state open meetings laws provide specific exemptions that allow government bodies to close meetings or portions of meetings to the public when they deal with certain subject matters, like pending litigation, the purchase of real estate, and official misconduct. These exemptions generally allow government bodies to hold a closed session when they are dealing with private information about an individual, trade secrets, or other confidential documents. The specific definitions and exemptions that will apply in a particular situation, as well as the character of your rights, will depend on what state you are in and whether you are dealing with a federal or state government body. (Note: if you are not sure whether the meeting you would like to attend is part of a federal, state, or local governmental body, you might find the section on Identifying Federal, State, and Local Government Bodies helpful.)
You should also be aware that the open meetings laws discussed in this section do not give you unlimited access to all government meetings. For example, neither the Government in the Sunshine Act nor the Federal Advisory Committee Act provide a right of access to legislative meetings, court proceedings, or meetings of executive departments or the President's staff. Other laws, however, may provide you with access to these proceedings. To learn more about your ability to access Congress's legislative sessions, committee hearings, and documents see Access to Congress. To learn more about your ability to attend court proceedings and to obtain court documents, see Access to Courts and Court Records. No law gives you the right to attend federal executive department meetings, but note that the Federal Advisory Committee Act allows you to attend meetings of advisory committees that assist the President. Consult the Access to Presidential Records section for information about what presidential documents are available for public use.
The following pages in this section will help you to understand and use open meetings laws intelligently:
- Access to Federal Agency Meetings: Access to federal agency meetings is governed by the Government in the Sunshine Act which gives you the right to attend the meetings of many federal agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. This section provides an overview of this law and describes your right to attend federal agency meetings.
- Access to Federal Advisory Committee Meetings: Federal advisory committee meetings are governed by a different law. The Federal Advisory Committee Act allows you to attend the meetings of advisory boards and committees that advise agencies of the federal government. This section provides an overview of this law and describes your right to attend federal advisory committee meetings.
- Access to State and Local Government Meetings: State open meetings laws entitle you to attend the meetings of a large number of state and local government bodies. This sections provides information about your right to attend meetings in your state.