Note: This page covers information specific to Pennsylvania. 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 Pennsylvania's public records using the state's RTK Law. See section 702. You do not have to tell the records-keeper why you are seeking the information as you cannot be denied a request because of your reasons for wanting the information.
What Records Are Covered in Pennsylvania
What Government Bodies Are Covered
You can access records from all commonwealth agencies, local agencies, legislative agencies, and judicial agencies. This includes all executive or state offices, boards, authorities, and departments. It also includes state courts and legislative bodies. See section 102.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
You can access any record "that documents a transaction or activity of an agency and that is created, received or retained pursuant to law or in connection with a transaction, business or activity of the agency" as long as it is not otherwise exempt by the law. See section 102. The legislature has further defined a record to refer to information in any form, such as a document, paper, letter, map, book, tape, photograph, film or sound recording, information stored or maintained electronically and a data-processed or image- processed document.
A records-keeper may refuse disclosure of the requested records if one or more of the following statutory exemptions applies:
- the disclosure of a record that would result in an agency's loss of federal or state funds
- the disclosure of a record that would be reasonably likely to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual
- information that, if disclosed, would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness or public protection activity
- a record that is designated classified by an appropriate federal or state military authority
- information that, if disclosed, has a reasonable likelihood of endangering the safety or the physical security of a building, public utility, resource, infrastructure, facility or information storage system
- a record which, if disclosed, would be reasonably likely to jeopardize computer security
- a record of an individual's medical, psychiatric or psychological history or disability status, results of health-related tests, or enrollment in a health care program or program designed for participation by persons with disabilities
- records containing personal identification information including a person's social security number; driver's license number; personal financial information; home, cellular or personal telephone numbers; personal email addresses; employee number or other confidential personal identification number; a spouse's name; marital status, beneficiary or dependent information
- home address of a law enforcement officer or judge
- certain documents pertaining to an agency employee, including:
- letter of reference or recommendation (unless it was prepared in relation to the employee's filling in of an appointed position)
- performance rating or review or test result
- grievance material, including documents related to discrimination or sexual harassment
- information regarding discipline, demotion or discharge contained in a personnel file (unless there is a final action of an agency that results in demotion or discharge)
- academic transcript
- the employment application of an individual who is not hired by the agency
- an agency's workplace support services program information
- information relating to labor relations or collective bargaining and related arbitration proceedings, but not the final or executed contract or agreement between the parties in a collective bargaining procedure
- the draft of a bill, resolution, regulation, statement of policy, management directive, ordinance or amendment prepared by or for an agency
- records concerning the internal, predecisional deliberations of an agency, unless the records were submitted to request Commonwealth funds, or are the results of public opinion surveys, polls, focus groups, marketing research or similar effort designed to measure public opinion
- trade secret or confidential proprietary information
- a public official or agency employee's personal notes and working papers
- information that would disclose the identity of an individual who lawfully makes a donation to an agency unless the donation is intended for or restricted to providing remuneration or personal tangible benefit to a named public official
- unpublished lecture notes, unpublished manuscripts, unpublished articles, creative works in progress, research- related material and scholarly correspondence of a community college or university
- academic transcripts relating to the qualifications of an individual and to examinations given in primary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education
- an agency record that concerns a criminal investigation, but not information contained in a police blotter
- an agency record relating to a noncriminal investigation
- information from audio recordings, telephone or radio transmissions received by emergency dispatch personnel, except time response logs (however, an agency or court could determine that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure of a particular 911 recording)
- DNA and RNA records
- autopsy records, but not information about the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death
- draft minutes of any meeting of an agency until the next regularly scheduled meeting of the agency
- minutes and records of discussions of an executive session
- real estate appraisals and other evaluations made for or by an agency in consideration of the leasing or purchase of real property until a decision to lease or purchase is made
- library records identifying individuals or groups of individuals
- materials gifted to a library or museum that were contributed with certain conditions
- a record identifying the location of an archeological site or an endangered or threatened plant or animal species if not already known to the general public
- proposals pertaining to agency procurement or disposal of supplies, services or construction prior to the award of the contract
- communications between an agency and its insurance carrier, administrative service organization or risk management office
- a record or information identifying an individual who applies for or receives social services
- correspondence between a person and a member of the General Assembly and records accompanying the correspondence which would identify a person that requests assistance or constituent services, unless the individual is a lobbyist
- records identifying the name, home address or date of birth of a child seventeen years of age or younger
Read section 708(b) of the RTK Law for more information about the exemptions.
How to Request Records in Pennsylvania
You may request a record verbally or in writing. However, if the agency denies you access to the record, you can only pursue remedies under the RTK Law if your original request was in writing. Consequently it may be in your best interests to provide the agency with a written request. Try to make your request as clear as possible so that the records-keeper can identify and find the records. Your request must be addressed to the agency's open-records officer and may be mailed, emailed, or faxed. Also, be sure to include the name and address to which you want the records or response sent. See chapter 7.
The agency must respond within five business days after receiving your request. If the agency fails to respond within this time period, your request is deemed denied. If the agency needs more time to fulfill the request (perhaps because the records are stored in a remote location), it must notify you within five business days and give you a reasonable date that it expects to respond. If the agency estimates that it will take more than thirty days to respond, then the request is deemed denied unless you specifically agree in writing to the extension. This means that an agency cannot make you wait more than 35 business days without your written consent. See chapter 9 for more information.
The agency may charge fees for postage (if you want the records sent to you), copying, certification, and conversion to paper (if the record is only maintained electronically and you want a paper copy). Generally, these fees must be reasonable, and copying fees should be comparable to duplication fees charged by local businesses.
The agency may waive the fee if it is in the public interest to do so. Therefore, you may want to ask for a fee waiver if you think that you may meet this requirement. Hoewever, the agency has the discretion to determine whether a fee waiver is in the public interest. See section 1307 for more information.
What Are Your Remedies in Pennsylvania
If you think that the agency has wrongly denied your request, you can file an appeal with the Office of Open Records within fifteen business days. Your appeal should state why the record is a public record and the reasons the agency gave for denying the request. The Office of Open Records will assign the case to an appeals officer, who will make a final decision within 30 days. If you do not receive a response from the appeals officer within thirty days, the appeal is deemed denied. See chapter 11.
If the appeals officer denies the appeal, you can file a petition for review in court. If a local agency denied your request, then you must file a petition in the court of common pleas for the county where the local agency is located. If a commonwealth agency, legislative agency, or judicial agency denied your request, then you must filed a petition in the Commonwealth Court. After reviewing the evidence, the Court will issue an opinion on the matter. See chapter 13. 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. Keep in mind that the burden is on the agency to prove that the record is exempt. See section 708(a).