Georgia Freedom of Information Act
What is the Georgia Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that allows individuals to request access to government agencies' records. The United States government enacted the FOIA in 1966, and it became effective on July 5, 1967. It allows for an open government which is essential to foster confidence in government.
In Georgia, the Open Records Act (ORA) gives the public the right to access, inspect, and copy public records on request. It is also known as the Georgia Sunshine Law. The Act supports open government and encourages the public to evaluate the expenditure of public funds. It applies to all Georgian State executive branch agencies. The legislative branch and the judiciary are not subject to the Act. According to the ORA, stating the purpose for a public record request is not required. Agencies subject to the Act include corporations, departments, boards, bureaus, commissions, and other political subdivisions of the state. Non-profit organizations that receive funding from the government in an amount more than one-third of such organizations’ funds are also subject to the Georgia Open Records Act.
The ORA was enacted on February 27, 1959. The most recent amendment was in 2012. The 2012 amendments clarified that the right of access to public records extends to people outside the state. It also reduced the cost of copying a record from 25 cents to 10 cents.
What is Covered Under the Georgia Freedom of Information Act?
The ORA defines public records as all letters, papers, tapes, documents, maps, books, photographs, computer-based or generated information. They include materials received, maintained, or prepared by a public agency in the course of their lawful duties. In Georgia, documents or information received and maintained by private entities to render service on behalf of a public agency are also considered public records and are subject to the ORA.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Georgia?
The Georgia Open Records Act, Section 50-18-72, prohibits public disclosure of the following information:
- Medical information
- Bank account information
- Social security numbers
- Credit or debit card information
- Mother’s birth name
- Home addresses and unlisted telephone numbers of public employees
- Passwords and email addresses
- Insurance information
- Month and day of birth
A record that contains confidential information can still be disclosed, but the confidential part must be redacted. Some of the records exempted from public access by the Georgia Open Records Act include:
- Records stipulated by law to be kept confidential
- Records compiled for law enforcement and prosecution purposes
- Medical and veterinary records
- Personal information of jury list
- Georgia Uniform Motor Vehicle Accident reports
- Confidential evaluation in connection with a public officer or employee
- Records that can compromise state security
- Real estate appraisals or estimates
- Rejected, pending, or deferred sealed bids or proposals until the project is terminated or abandoned, or a public vote is taken regarding the sealed bids
- Records of historical research value
- Information relating to the location and character of a historic property
- Agricultural or food system data considered to be a critical infrastructure by the Department of Agriculture
- Proprietary or copyrighted records
- Test and examination materials that derive value from being unknown to the test taker
- Attorney-client communications and work products
- Confidential tax information
- Records of research participants, which if disclosed, will reveal their identities
- A computer program or software record
The record custodian bears the responsibility of proving a case for exemption. They must provide a requester with the specific law exempting a requested record from public disclosure within three business days. However, an exempt record can be released for public view subject to an order of a court of competent jurisdiction.
How Do I File a Georgia Freedom of Information Act Request?
In Georgia, Open Records Law requests are made to agencies in charge of the records being sought. An agency may designate an employee to receive all open records requests. Contact information of the designated officer is usually shared on the agency’s website. A request can only be made for existing records in their present forms. Georgia ORA requests can be made orally or in writing. However, only written requests are subject to civil or criminal enforcement proceedings.
A Georgia ORA request should include the following information:
- Name and address of the requester
- Requesting date
- Name of agency
- A detailed description of the sought records
- The highest fee the requester is willing to pay without prior notice (this is optional as the law already limits the fee to $25 without notice)
- A statement requesting for a waiver if the record is being sought in the public interest
- Requester’s phone number
The process of submitting a request varies by agency. Requests may be submitted via email, mail, online form, or in-person. For instance, the Georgia Secretary of State Office accepts email submissions. Requesters can also submit their ORA requests to the Secretary of State Office via mail to:
Open Records Officer
214 State Capitol
Atlanta, GA 30334
Phone: (844) 753-7825
The Office of the Attorney General provides a sample Open Records Request Form that can be completed and submitted to any agency for a public record request. The Office of the State Treasurer also provides an Open Records Request online form, which requesters can complete to make their open record requests. Similarly, the Governor’s Office provides an Open Records Request webform.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Georgia?
Per the Georgia Open Records Act, Section 50-18-71, a record custodian may charge a reasonable fee for the search, retrieval, and administrative cost of producing a record. The ORA also fixed a uniform copying charge of 10 cents per page (though most agencies still quote the pre-2012 fee of 25 cents). Where the total costs exceed $25, the agency must notify the requester of the estimated cost and defer the request until the requester agrees to pay the total amount. The agency can insist on prepayment of production costs that exceed $500.
Records maintained on computer systems should be provided by electronic means where practicable. The hourly charge for the search, retrieval, redaction, and administrative costs of copying a record must not exceed the salary of the least-paid full-time employee with the required skill to conduct the search. The first 15 minutes will not be charged.
Some agencies in Georgia have charging charts for common Open Records requests. For instance, the Charging Chart for the Georgia Department of Public Safety contains the following fees for different records:
- Crash report - $5 each
- Incidence report - $2 each
- Personnel file - $0.25 per page + Production to Media Device + Cost of Media and Mail
- Citation - $1 for each additional citation after the first citation
- Photos - $5 for download
- Production to Media Device - $2 for a copy to one DVD or one jump drive
- Dashcam videos - $10 for download
- Cost of Media and Mail - $5 for jump drive and $3 for shipping by mail for each item
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Georgia?
All Open Records requests in Georgia are required to be processed and responded to within three working days of the receipt of the request. The response can be one of the following:
- One that provides the records with or without redaction
- A response indicating that the record cannot be released as it is exempted from the Act and cites the portion of the law that exempts the record
- One that requests more copying time. The response will state the description of the record, cost, and time estimate for its production.
The record volume, the number of redactions, and the request complexity are some factors that cause a delay in responding to a request. For instance, an audio or video record might take longer than a text document.
The ORA has no provision for an administrative appeal when an agency fails to provide a record. The Office of the Attorney General established an Open Government Mediation Program to help citizens with concerns about agencies’ responses to open records requests. However, any person or entity may file a case in the Superior Courts of Georgia to enforce compliance for requests made in writing. The ORA also authorizes the Attorney General to enforce compliance with the Act and may file a civil or criminal case against a person or agency in violation of the Act. Compliance issues that are adjudicated by the Superior Courts include:
- Suitability of fees
- Delay in responding to a request
- Denial of request.
A person or an agency that refuses to provide access to records within the time limit will be guilty of a misdemeanor. They may be fined an amount not more than $1,000 for a first violation. Each additional violation within 12 months of the first violation shall attract a fine of not more than $2,500. In any enforcement action where the court determines that an agency did not comply with the law or a requester wrongfully instituted the litigation, the court may award penalties. The penalties include payment of attorney’s fees and other litigation costs incurred.