Note: This page covers information specific to Indiana. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The Indiana Open Door Law provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government agencies at the state and local level. The law also entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting memoranda. For more detailed information about Indiana open meetings law, consult the Handbook on Indiana's Public Access Laws prepared by Indiana's Public Access Counselor and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Indiana.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The Indiana Open Door Law covers the governing bodies of public agencies. The legal definition of "governing bodies of public agencies" is exceedingly complex. See pages six and seven of the Public Access Counselor's Handbook on Indiana's Public Access Laws for a detailed explanation. At the risk of over-simplification, the Act covers multi-member boards, commissions, councils, and committees of state and local government that take action on public business. This includes the governing boards and commissions of departments and agencies in the executive branch of state government, county boards, city councils, school boards, and the boards of trustees of public colleges and universities, among other things. It also includes the Indiana General Assembly and its committees. The Open Door Law does not apply to the federal government bodies or private organizations.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under the Indiana Open Door Law, a "meeting" is a gathering of a majority of the members of a governing body of a public agency for the purpose of taking official action upon agency business. The word "official action means to receive information, deliberate, make recommendations, establish policy, make decisions, or take final action. There are several examples of what meetings are and what it means to take public action set forth on pages seven and eight of the Public Access Counselor's Handbook on Indiana's Public Access Laws.
The Open Door Law lists four types of gatherings that are not considered “meetings.” A meeting does not include: (1) any social or chance gathering not intended to avoid the requirements of the Open Door law; (2) any on-site inspection of a project or program; (3) traveling to and attending meetings of organizations devoted to the betterment of government; or (4) a caucus (defined as "a gathering of members of a political party or coalition which is held for purposes of planning political strategy and holding discussions designed to prepare the members for taking official action").
What Are Your Rights?
The Indiana Open Door Law gives "the public" the right to attend the meetings of governing bodies of public agencies, with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. Indiana law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend.
Members of the public may "observe and record" meetings, but the statute gives the public no right to speak. As a matter of practice, however, governing bodies of public agencies often allow members of the public to speak at the end of public meetings.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Indiana law requires the governing bodies of public agencies to give the public advance notice of their meetings. Governing bodies must publish notice of their regularly scheduled meetings once a year no later than forty-eight hours prior to the first meeting. The notice must contain the dates, times and locations of all meetings. The notice must be posted at the principal office of the public agency holding the meeting or, if no such office exists, at the building where the meeting is to be held. The governing body must also deliver notice by mail, email, or fax to "all news media" that submit a written request for notice annually. It is not clear whether a non-traditional journalist or other online publisher would qualify as part of the "news media," but you may want to request notice in any event. If a governing body uses an agenda, it must post the agenda at the entrance to the meeting location prior to the meeting.
If a governing body reschedules a meeting, changes the location of a meeting, or decides to hold a closed session (below), it must post and deliver notice as described above at least forty-eight hours in advance. Different notice requirements apply in emergency situations. See the Open Government Guide: Indiana for details.
The Open Door Law exempts the Indiana General Assembly from its notice requirements.
Minutes and Recordings
Governing bodies must keep "memoranda" of meetings, which are functionally similar to minutes. The memoranda must include:
- the date, time, and place of the meeting;
- the members of the governing body recorded as either present or absent;
- the general substance of all matters proposed, discussed, or decided; and
- a record of all votes taken, by individual members if there is a roll call.
Governing bodies must make these memoranda available to the public for inspection and copying. If a governing body chooses to record minutes (it is not required to do so), it must also make these minutes available to the public for inspection and copying.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Indiana Public Records.
An Exception: Closed Sessions
The general rule is that the meetings of all governing bodies of public agencies meetings must be open to the public, but a governing body may hold a closed or "executive" session if it identifies a specific statutory exemption. Under the Indiana Open Door Law, a governing body may hold an executive session when it is dealing with one of thirteen subject-area exemptions found in Ind. Code § 5-14-1.5-6.1 (scroll down). The thirteen exemptions are for meetings:
- to discuss strategy with respect to collective bargaining, initiation of litigation, implementation of security systems, or the purchase or lease of real estate;
- to discuss the assessment, design, and implementation of school safety and security measures, plans, and systems;
- to carry out interviews and negotiations with industrial or commercial prospects or agents of industrial or commercial prospects (only certain governing bodies may invoke this exemption);
- to receive information about and interview prospective employees;
- to receive information about the alleged misconduct of certain individuals;
- to discuss records classified as confidential by state or federal statute;
- to discuss before a placement decision an individual student's abilities, past performance, behavior, and needs;
- to discuss a job performance evaluation of individual employees;
- to develop a list of prospective appointees for a public official position and to consider applications and make initial exclusions;
- to train school board members with an outside consultant about the performance of the role of the members as public officials;
- to prepare or score examinations used in issuing licenses, certificates, permits, or registrations;
- to discuss information and intelligence intended to prevent, mitigate, or respond to the threat of terrorism; and
- where federal or state law authorizes closure.
If the governing body is dealing with one of these exemptions, then it may hold a closed session, but it is not required to do so. In order to hold a closed session, it must also meet the following procedural requirements:
- the governing body must give public notice of the executive session at least forty-eight hours in advance, and the notice must state the time, date, and location of the session and reference the specific statutory exception justifying closure of the meeting;
- the governing body must certify by a statement in the memoranda of the executive session that it discussed no subject matter beyond that specified in the public notice; and
- no final action may be taken in executive session.
What Are Your Remedies If Denied Access?
If you know in advance that a meeting will be closed, and you believe that closure would violate the Indiana Open Door Law, you should make a written demand for access on the chairperson of the governing body or its attorney. The demand should remind the governing body of its obligations under the Open Door Law and ask it to identify the statutory exception it is relying on to close the meeting. If the governing body refuses your demand for access, you should contact the the Public Access Counselor, a state position created in order to provide advice and assistance to the public about Indiana's public access laws. The Access Counselor may provide you with informal advice or make a formal determination of whether the governing body in question is violating the open meetings law, but its advice and determinations are not binding on public agencies. You may also sue the governing body in Indiana state court. If you are successful, a court may order the governing body to make the meeting in question open to the public.
You may also sue to have a court invalidate past actions of a governing body taken in violation of the Open Door Law, but complicated time limits apply for those types of cases. See page eleven of the Handbook on Indiana's Public Access Laws for details. If you decide to sue, 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. If you win in a lawsuit against a governing body for violation of the Open Door Law, a court must award you reasonable attorneys' fees, costs, and expenses if you sought the advice of the Public Access Counselor prior to filing suit. On the other hand, if you lose, a court may force you to pay the attorneys' fees of the governing body if it finds that your lawsuit was "frivolous and vexatious" in nature. This would not happen unless your legal claim were utterly and obviously without any merit. Seeking the advice of the Public Access Counselor before filing a lawsuit would be a good way to avoid bringing a "frivolous and vexatious" case.
If you show up at a meeting and the governing body tries to exclude you from it, you do not have time to get a court order. You should remind the presiding officer (or whoever is denying you access) that Indiana Code § 5-14-1.5-3 requires that the meetings of the governing bodies of state or local agencies be open to the public unless there is a specific statutory exemption. You should insist on your right to attend unless the presiding officer can identify for you the statutory authority for closing the meeting. If the governing body still insists on excluding you, you have no choice but to leave in an orderly fashion. You should then contact the Public Access Counselor and consider filing a lawsuit.