Note: This page covers information specific to Massachusetts. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings 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.
The Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, §§ 18-25, and accompanying regulations, 940 Code of Mass. Regs. 29.00, provide the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of public bodies at the state and local level. Massachusetts law also gives you the ability to inspect and copy meeting minutes and imposes notice requirements on public bodies. For more detailed information on the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, see the Massachusetts Attorney General's Open Meeting Law website.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Public Bodies Are Covered?
The Open Meeting Law applies to public bodies. This includes nearly all boards, commissions, committees, and other multi-member bodies that carry out a government function at the state, county, district, city, region, or town level in Massachusetts. However, the law specifically excludes the following things from the definition of "public body": (1) the judicial branch of state government; (2) the General Court (i.e., the state legislature) and its committees and subcommittees; (3) boards appointed by particular government officers soley to advise the officer; (4) the Board of Bank Incorporation; or (5) the Policyholders Protective Board. Covered groups include boards of selectmen, city councils, local school boards, and state boards and commissions like the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the State Ethics Committee. The law does not cover individual government officials such as a mayor or police chief. It also does not apply to federal public bodies or private organizations. See Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, § 18.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what public bodies are covered by Massachusetts 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 Open Meeting Law applies to every gathering of a quorum of a public body where attending members discuss or consider official business within the scope of their official authority. A "quorum" means a simple majority of members of the public body, unless provided otherwise for a particular public body by law or executive order. For example, if a city council has seven members, a "meeting" takes place whenever four or more council members congregate to deal with city council business.
The Open Meeting Law does not apply to:
(a) an on-site inspection of a project or program by members of a public body, so long as the members do not deliberate;
(b) attendance by a quorum of a public body at a public or private gathering, including a conference or training program or a media, social or other event, so long as the members do not deliberate;
(c) attendance by a quorum of a public body at a meeting of another public body that has complied with the notice requirements of the open meeting law, so long as the visiting members communicate only by open participation in the meeting on those matters under discussion by the host body and do not deliberate;
(d) a meeting of a quasi-judicial board or commission held for the sole purpose of making a decision required in an adjudicatory proceeding brought before it; or
(e) a session of a town meeting which would include the attendance by a quorum of a public body at any such session.
What Are Your Rights?
The Open Meeting Law states that "all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public," with exceptions for closed sessions discussed below. Massachusetts law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend, including non-residents and non-voters.
The Open Meeting Law does not give the public a right to participate or comment during open meetings. As a matter of practice, however, public bodies often allow members of the public to comment during public meetings. No one may address a public meeting of a public body without permission of the presiding officer, and all persons must be silent upon request of the presiding officer. See Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, § 20.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Massachusetts law requires public bodies to give notice to the public of its meetings. A public body must provide notice at least forty-eight hours in advance (excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays). The notice must contain the date, time, and place of the meeting. See Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, § 20.
Notice of a meeting must be filed and posted in specific ways depending on whether the meeting is taking place at the local, regional, district, county, or state level. Specific methods of notice for each level of government are described in the Attorney General's regulations; see 940 Code of Mass. Regs. 29.03.
Minutes and Recordings
Public bodies must must record and maintain accurate minutes of their meetings, setting forth at a minimum the date, time, place, members present or absent, and action taken at each meeting. Public bodies must create and approve minutes in a timely fashion, and must make these minutes available to the public for inspection and copying within 10 days of a request by any person.
The minutes of any open session, the notes, recordings or other materials used in the preparation of such minutes and all documents and exhibits used at the session, are public records subject to the Massachusetts Public Records Law, except for (1) materials used in a performance evaluation of an individual bearing on his professional competence, provided they were not created by the members of the body for the purposes of the evaluation; and (2) materials used in deliberations about employment or appointment of individuals, including applications and supporting materials; provided, however, that any resume submitted by an applicant shall not be exempt.
An exception to the public right to access meeting minutes and related materials exist for closed meetings and sessions, as discussed below.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed session, called an "executive session," it must identity a specific statutory exception. Under the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, a public body may hold an executive session when it is dealing with one of ten subject-area exemptions found in Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, § 21. The ten exemptions are:
- To discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual;
- To conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel or to conduct collective bargaining sessions or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel;
- To discuss strategy with respect to collective bargaining or litigation if an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the bargaining or litigating position of the public body and the chair so declares;
- To discuss the deployment of security personnel or devices, or strategies with respect thereto;
- To investigate charges of criminal misconduct or to consider the filing of criminal complaints;
- To consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property if the chair declares that an open meeting may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the public body;
- To comply with, or act under the authority of, any general or special law or federal grant-in-aid requirements;
- To consider or interview applicants for employment or appointment by a preliminary screening committee if the chair declares that an open meeting will have a detrimental effect in obtaining qualified applicants;
- To meet or confer with a mediator with respect to any litigation or decision on any public business within its jurisdiction;
- To discuss trade secrets or confidential, competitively-sensitive or other proprietary information provided in the course of activities conducted by a governmental body as an energy supplier or as a municipal aggregator, or in the course of activities conducted by a cooperative consisting of governmental entities, when such governmental body, municipal aggregator or cooperative determines that such disclosure will adversely affect its ability to conduct business in relation to other entities making, selling or distributing electric power and energy.
There are additional limitations on many of these exemptions, so if you believe that you have been excluded from a meeting regarding subject matter that might fall within one of the exemptions above, be sure to read the statute carefully.
Note also that these exemptions make it permissible for a public body to close a meeting, but they do not require the public body to do so. Assuming that a public body is dealing with one of these enumerated exceptions, then it may hold an executive session, but it must also meet the following procedural requirements:
- the public body must first convene in an open meeting for which notice was given;
- at this open meeting, the public body must vote by a majority of members present to go into executive session;
- prior to the vote, the presiding officer must state for the record the statutory exemption relied on to close the meeting;
- before going into executive session, the presiding officer must state whether the body will reconvene after the executive session; and
- accurate records of the executive session must be maintained, but the public body may keep these minutes confidential "as long as publication may defeat the lawful purposes of the executive session, but no longer." Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, § 22.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you believe that a public body is violating or has violated your right of access under the Open Meeting Law, you have two options under the law. See Mass Gen. Laws. ch. 30A, § 23.
Requesting help from the Attorney General:
First, you may ask the Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to investigate and take action on violations of the Open Meetings Law. There is a specific procedure that you must follow to pursue this option:
- You must first file a complaint with the public body that you believe violated the law within 30 days of the alleged violation. This complaint must identify the circumstances that violated the law and provide an opportunity to remedy the violation.
- The public body, within 14 days of receipt of your complaint, is required to forward the complaint to the Attorney General's office with notification of any remedial action taken in response to the complaint.
- If the public body fails to respond or if you are dissatisfied with the remedial action the public body takes, you can forward your complaint to the Attorney General's office, but no sooner than 30 days after you filed your initial complaint with the public body. However, you should not wait too long to file with the Attorney General's office, because the Attorney General may decline to investigate complaints filed more than 90 days after the alleged violation.
The Attorney General attempts to resolve complaints within a reasonable period of time, generally 90 days. After reviewing your complaint, the Attorney General will determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the Open Meeting Law has been violated, and if so, whether to conduct a formal investigation. The Attorney General may request additional information from you about the alleged violation.
At the conclusion of its investigation, the Attorney General's office will make findings, and where a violation has occurred, may order remedial action. If the Open Meeting Law has been violated unintentionally, then the Attorney General will resolve the investigation by informal action or by formal ruling for more significant violations. The Attorney General may order remedial action by the public body directing immediate and future compliance with the law, attendance at a training session, release of records, or other appropriate action. If the Attorney General's office seeks to reinstate an employee or nullify the action of a public body as a remedy for the violation, it will ordinarily convene a hearing to take testimony from witnesses to determine the appropriate remedy. If the Attorney General's office has reasonable cause to believe that the Open Meeting Law has been violated intentionally, it may convene a hearing to determine whether the violation was intentional, whether the public body, one or more of its members, or both, were responsible, and whether to impose on the public body a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each violation.
Filing a lawsuit:
Instead of going through the Attorney General, you can file a lawsuit directly against the public body in state court, but you may do so only if you can organize three or more registered voters to act as plaintiffs. A lawsuit against a public body at the state level must be filed in Suffolk County Superior Court. Lawsuits against other public bodies must be filed in the superior court for the county in which the public body acts or meets.
Special provisions encourage the speedy determination of lawsuits over open meetings violations. In any such lawsuit, the burden is on the public body to prove that their conduct was in accordance with the Open Meetings Law, except that for a court to issue a civil penalty directed at an individual, you must provide proof that the action of the public body violated the law. A public body may also avoid liability by proving that it acted in good faith compliance with the advice of its attorney in taking the challenged action. If you sue and win, you can obtain the remedies mentioned above, including an order barring future violations, disclosure of meeting minutes from improperly closed meetings, invalidation of past actions, and/or a civil penalty of not more than $1,000 per intentional violation of the law.
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.