Note: This page covers information specific to Massachusetts. For general information concerning access to government records see the Access to Government Records section of this guide.
For additional information about engaging in journalism in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, please see our printable PDF guide Newsgathering in Massachusetts, co-produced with the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic.
You have a statutory right to inspect a vast number of the Commonwealth's public records using the state's Public Records law. See Chapter 66, section 10(a) of the Massachusetts General Laws, ("Mass. Gen. Laws") which states that "anyone" can make a request for state public records in Massachusetts.
You are not required to explain to a records custodian (the government officer who controls or has access to public records) why you are making a request. 950 CMR 32.05(5). However, if you request records involving building and infrastructure plans, vulnerability assessments, security measures, or other such requests that may raise terrorism-related concerns, a records custodian may ask you to provide the purpose for your request. Although you are not required to answer, you may wish do to so as the records custodian is charged with using all the information available to reach a reasonable judgment on whether the disclosure will jeopardize public safety, and thus whether to grant your request. Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 4, § 7(26)(n).
What Records Are Covered in Massachusetts
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You can inspect the public records of any Commonwealth agency, executive office, department, board, commission, bureau, division or authority, or of any of their political subdivisions. You can also inspect the public records of any authority established by the general court to serve a public purpose. However, the Public Records Law does not apply to the Massachusetts state legislature or its committees, nor to the state courts. See Access to Government Meetings in Massachusetts and Massachusetts State Court Records for more information.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
You can inspect all "public records" of the government bodies subject to the Public Records Law. The term "public records" is broadly defined to include all documents, including those in electronic form, generated or received by any government body. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 4, § 7(26).
A records custodian may refuse disclosure of the requested records if one or more of the following statutory exemptions applies:
- the records are exempt under another statute
- records related solely to internal personnel rules and practices of the government entity
- records that contain personnel and medical information
- inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda or letters relating to policy positions being developed by the agency
- a government employee's personal materials, such as her notebooks
- investigatory materials created by law enforcement
- trade secrets or commercial or financial information voluntarily provided to an agency for use in developing governmental policy and upon a promise of confidentiality
- records containing proposals and bids to enter into any contract until the time the proposals and bids are to be opened publicly
- intra-agency records concerning the evaluation process for reviewing bids or proposals, prior to entering into negotiations with or to awarding a contract to a particular person
- 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
- the names and addresses of any persons contained in (1) applications for licenses to carry or possess firearms, or (2) sales or transfers of any firearms, rifles, shotguns, or machine guns or ammunition
- the questions and answers, and scoring keys used to develop, administer or score a test or examination, as long as the information is to be used for another test or examination
- contracts for hospital or medical services between a government-operated healthcare facility and a health maintenance organization or a health insurance corporation
- building and infrastructure plans and emergency procedures whose disclosure might create a public safety risk
- the home address and home telephone number of an employee of the judicial branch, an unelected employee of the general court, an agency, executive office, department, board, commission, bureau, division or authority of the commonwealth (Note that this exemption extends to their family members as well.)
- information collected in the adoption contact information registry
Consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth's A Guide to Massachusetts Public Records Law for more information on these exemptions.
How to Request Records in Massachusetts
You may make either an oral or a written request to the records custodian for the government body whose public records you wish to inspect. (If you do not know who the records custodian is, call the government body and ask for the records custodian's contact information.)
The records custodian has ten days to refuse or comply with your request. Mass. Gen. Law, ch. 66, § 10(b). If you want a copy of the documents, you may need to pay a fee. The fee must be reasonable and may cover the time the records custodian spends searching, redacting, copying, and refiling a record. In some cases, a records custodian has the discretion to waive fees if disclosure is in the public interest. Note that the law only applies to existing documents. The law does not require a records custodian to create a record in response to your request (but he may do so at his discretion).
What Are Your Remedies
You have several options open to you should the records custodian deny your request. First, try to work with the records custodian. If the agency is relying on an exemption, ask the records custodian to release the nonexempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.
You may also petition the supervisor of public records. You will need to send a letter to the supervisor within 90 days of your original request (NOT from the date your request was denied) stating the reasons for your appeal. The letter must be accompanied by your original request and the written response, if any, you received from the custodian of the record. If the supervisor finds that the records are public, the supervisor can force the records custodian to comply. If, on the other hand, the supervisor of records issues a denial, you are entitled to seek court review of the denial. You can file a lawsuit with the Massachusetts supreme judicial and superior courts to enforce compliance with your request. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 66, § 10(b). Refer to our section on Finding Legal Help for more information on how to get legal assistance to help you assess the merits of a potential lawsuit against the government entity.
For more information
You may want to familiarize yourself with the Public Records law and browse through chapter 66 and chapter 4, section 7, clause 26 of the Massachusetts General Laws for more information. Additionally, to better understand the intricacies of the law, refer to the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth's terrific resource called A Guide to Massachusetts Public Records Law. If you are requesting information from police agencies, you may wish review this bulletin from the supervisor of public records, which addresses some of the more common reasons why Massachusetts police officials deny public records requests.