Note: This page covers information specific to North Carolina. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The North Carolina Open Meetings Law provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level in North Carolina. The law entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes. For more detailed information about North Carolina open meetings law, please consult the North Carolina Open Government Coalition's Open Meetings Law Guide and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: North Carolina.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The North Carolina Open Meetings Law covers public bodies. The law defines a "public body" as
any elected or appointed authority, board, commission, committee, council, or other body of the State, or of one or more counties, cities, school administrative units, constituent institutions of The University of North Carolina, or other political subdivisions or public corporations in the State that (i) is composed of two or more members and (ii) exercises or is authorized to exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function.
Public bodies can be part of state, county, or municipal government, and they share two salient features. First, they involve two or more persons acting jointly. The Open Meetings Law thus do not apply to government officials who act in an individual capacity, like the governor or a mayor, when they meet with their subordinates. Second, to be covered by the Open Meetings Law, a body must exercise a legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, or advisory function. This sounds complicated, but it means that groups carrying out most government functions are covered, with the exception of courts carrying out their traditional judicial function. Examples of public bodies include state boards and commissions, city councils, school boards, and governing boards affiliated with The University of North Carolina. The law also applies to any committee or subcommittee that carries out activities on behalf of a public body or advises a public body. It does not apply to federal government bodies.
The Open Meetings Law also applies to the North Carolina General Assembly and most of its committees, but slightly different notice rules apply to these bodies. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.14A. The law specifically exempts from coverage certain government bodies, including grand juries, law enforcement agencies, the Judicial Standards Commission, and the Legislative Ethics Committee.
Consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: North Carolina for more information on what public bodies are covered.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute an "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). The North Carolina Open Meetings Law requires that the official meetings of public bodies be open to the public. The law defines an "official meeting" as a gathering of a majority of members of a public body "for purposes of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business" of the public body. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(d). The term "official meetings" applies beyond formal meetings called to take public action, and include gatherings to weighh and reflect on the reasons for possible decisions and information-gathering sessions.
The Open Meetings Law does not cover a gathering of the professional staff of a public body. It also does not cover a social or ceremonial gathering, so long as the public body does not use the gathering as an excuse for getting around the open-meetings requirements.
A public body may hold a meeting by telephone or videoconferencing, but it must provide a location and way for the public to listen to the meeting. The public body may charge each member of the public a fee (maximum of $25) to defray the cost of providing a location and equipment. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.13(a). An email exchange or other electronic communications could constitute an "official meeting" if public body members used electronic communications to engage with each other simultaneously. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(d) (definition of "official meeting" includes "simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means").
What Are Your Rights?
The North Carolina Open Meetings Law gives "any person" the right to attend an official meeting of a public body, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. North Carolina law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend.
The right to attend official meetings does not include a right to comment or participate. As a matter of practice, however, public bodies may give the public an opportunity to speak at meetings. The presiding officer of a public body may direct a person to leave a meeting if he or she interrupts, disturbs, or disrupts an official meeting. If the person creating a disturbance refuses to leave, the state may charge him or her with a misdemeanor. See the North Carolina Department of Justice's Questions and Answers Guide.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, North Carolina law requires public bodies to give advance notice of their official meetings to the public. If a public body has a regular schedule of its meetings, it must file the schedule in the following places:
- for public bodies that are part of state government, with the Secretary of State;
- for the governing board and each other public body that is part of a county government, with the clerk to the board of county commissioners;
- for the governing board and each other public body that is part of a city government, with the city clerk; and
- for each other public body, with its clerk or secretary, or, if the public body does not have a clerk or secretary, with the clerk to the board of county commissioners in the county in which the public body normally holds its meetings. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.12(a).
If the public body changes the schedule, it must file a revised schedule at least seven days before the first meeting held under the new schedule.
A public body may also hold "special" meetings, which are meetings not listed on the regular schedule. A public body must give notice of a special meeting at least forty-eight hours before the meeting. The public body must post the notice on its principal bulletin board or, if it has no bulletin board, at the door of its usual meeting room. The public body must also mail or deliver notice to any person who requests notice in writing. The public body may impose a fee of up to $10 per calendar year for ordinary individuals. It may not impose a fee on a "newspaper, wire service, radio station, and television station" that requests notice. It is not clear whether a non-traditional journalist or other online publisher could qualify for no-fee notice, but you should consider asking for a fee waiver. A public body may require persons requesting notice to renew their requests quarterly (four times a year). See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.12(b)(2).
Different notice rules apply to emergency meetings. See the Open Government Guide: North Carolina for details.
Minutes, Recordings, and Documents
Every public body is required to keep full and accurate minutes of all official meetings, including closed sessions. Public bodies must make these minutes publicly available for inspection and copying, except for the minutes of closed sessions when public inspection would frustrate the purpose of the closed session. A public body may satisfy this requirement through sound or video recordings. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(e).
Under the North Carolina public records law, you are entitled to documents and other background material distributed to members at official meetings.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see North Carolina Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all official meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed or "executive" session, it must identify a specific statutory exemption. Under the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, a public body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of nine subject-area exemptions found in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(a). A public body may close a session for the following nine purposes:
- to prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential under state or federal law;
- to prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award;
- to consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney‑client privilege between the attorney and the public body;
- to discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations;
- to establish, or to instruct the public body's staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract;
- to consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee, or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee;
- to plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct;
- to formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence; and
- to discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.
The exemptions make it permissible for a public body to close a portion of a meeting; they do not require the public body to do so. To close a session, a public body must identify the exemption justifying closure and vote during a open meeting to hold a closed session. When voting, the public body must refer to the specific statutory exemption relied on to close the meeting. If the public body indicates that it will discuss confidential information, it must identify the law that makes the information in question confidential. If it indicates that it will discuss pending litigation, it must identify the parties to the litigation.
The minutes of closed sessions must give a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what took place. A public body may withhold the minutes if public inspection would frustrate the purpose of the closed session. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(e). When the reason for holding a closed session is no longer valid, a public body must make these minutes available to the public.
For more information on the exemptions to the open-meetings requirements, see the Open Government Guide: North Carolina.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
Under North Carolina law, any person may file a lawsuit in North Carolina state court for violations of the Open Meetings Law. If you succeed in a lawsuit, you can obtain a court order requiring that a meeting or meetings be made open to the public in the future, or requiring that a public body satisfy its notice obligations. You can also obtain a court order invalidating the actions of a public body taken in violation of the Open Meetings Law, but to do so you must file a lawsuit within within 45 days after the action you are challenging became public. The law provides for expedited review of lawsuits brought for violations of the Open Meetings Law. If you go to court and win, the court may order the losing public body to pay your attorneys' fees, but the court is not required to do so.
In the event that you are denied access to a meeting or class of meetings, you probably want to pursue an informal resolution before filing a lawsuit, which ordinarily is a costly and slow solution. You should contact the public body in question and inform it that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the public body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.