Note: This page covers information specific to North Carolina. For general information concerning access to government records see the Access to Government Records section of this guide.
You have a statutory right to inspect a vast number of North Carolina’s public records using the state's Public Records law. See chapter 132, section 1(b) of the North Carolina General Statute, (N.C. Gen. Stat.) stating that public records are the property of the "the people."
What Records Are Covered in North Carolina
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You are entitled to inspect and copy records of "public agencies" under the Public Records law. The term "public agency" is defined broadly and applies to any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions. This includes every public office, public officer, institution, board, commission, bureau, council, department, authority, or unit of the state government or a subdivision of government. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1. Consult Access to Government Meetings in North Carolina and North Carolina State Court Records for more information on how to access records from those government entities.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
You can inspect all "public records" of North Carolina’s public agencies. The term "public record" refers to all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, tapes, or electronic data made or received in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(a).
An agency may refuse disclosure of the requested records if one or more of the following statutory exemptions applies:
- Communications between attorneys and government clients made within the scope of the attorney-client relationship N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1
- State and local tax information N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1
- Public Enterprise Billing Information N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1
- Personally Identifiable Admissions Information for North Carolina public colleges and universities N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1
- Trade secrets N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.2
- Certain government lawsuit settlements N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.3
- Criminal investigation records N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4
- Criminal intelligence information records N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4
- Information contained in a 911 database N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.5
- Emergency Response Plans N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.6
- Photographs and recordings of autopsies (although the text of an official autopsy report is a public record which you may request) N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.8
This list is not a complete list of the occasions when an agency may refuse disclosure. There are numerous narrow exceptions to North Carolina's public records law as well. Please refer to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide: North Carolina for more information about the exemptions under the Public Records law.
How to Request Records in North Carolina
You can generally request records via telephone, fax, mail, or in person. However, agencies may require that the requests be written. Although you may direct your request to any employee within the agency, the custodian of public records is officially in charge of access to public records N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-2. Therefore, you may want to contact the custodian directly if possible. Try to make your request as specific as possible so the custodian of public records can easily find the document you are seeking.
You may choose to simply inspect the records during the agency's business hours, or you may request that the agency provide you with copies of the records. If you want the records in a specific format (such as CD-ROM), make sure to specify the format in your request. The law requires that the agency provide the records "in any and all media in which the public agency is capable of providing them." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6.2. Note that the law only applies to existing documents. The law does not require the custodian of public records to create a record in response to your request.
The law does not specify a specific time period in which the agency must comply with your request. The agency must simply furnish copies "as promptly as possible" N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6.
The agency must provide the records "free or at a minimal cost." Minimal cost means the actual cost of reproducing the records. Agencies may not charge additional fees beyond the actual cost of copying N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.
What Are Your Remedies in North Carolina
If your request is denied, you should first ask the custodian of public records to state the specific reason for the denial. If the custodian is relying on an exemption, ask her to release the nonexempt portions of the record with the exempt portions removed or redacted.
If you feel that the denial is not justified, you may file a civil action in court against the agency to compel disclosure. Actions brought under the Public Records law must be set down for immediate hearing and are given priority in the courts. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-9. Unlike other states, there are no administrative appeals processes to exhaust before initiating a civil suit in court. However, in order for the court to have jurisdiction to issue an order compelling the production of public records, the requesting party must initiate mediation of the dispute through the court. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-9(a); see also N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A‑38.3E(b). The court need not wait until mediation has concluded to order that public records be produced. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A‑38.3E(h). 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 public agency.