Open Records > FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When does the new Right-To-Know law take effect? [Section 3104]

What is the single biggest change under the new law? [Section 305]

Does the Office of Open Records have established rules and regulations or guidelines regarding the new law? [Section 504, 1102]

How can I request information from my local government or state agency? [Section 703]

Is there a form I can use to use to obtain records? [Section 505]

Can a public body ask why a person wants obtain the information? [Section 1308]

Can a request be denied because the requester is not a citizen of Pennsylvania? [Section 102]

Can a state agency or local agency charge me for copying records? [Section 1307]

Can a state agency or local agency charge additional fees? [Section 1307]

Does the OOR recommend state and local agencies take any particular actions to help them be in compliance with the new law?

If our local or state agency receives a right-to-know request what must we do to be in compliance with the new law? [Section 502, 703, 901]

Are emails public record? [Section 102]

Can a public body limit the number of requests that a citizen can make? [Section1308(1)].

Can a requester ask for records in person?

Can a requester ask for records by telephone?

Does the Right-to-Know Law provide for due process for agency employees?

Are itemized cell phone bills public record?

What are some examples of public records?

What are some types of information that will NOT be available?

Does the new law cover records created before January 1, 2009?

What personal liability does an open-records officer or agency have? [Section 1304, 1305, 1306]

Will the new Right-to-Know Law give me access to adoption records?

Are Tax Collectors Considered an "Agency" under the new law?

If I want records of an Agency should I just send the request to the Office of Open Records?

Are Volunteer Fire Companies and their records subject to the Right-to-Know Law?

Are Autopsy Reports Public Record?

How does an agency provide evidence that a record doesn’t exist?

How does an agency provide evidence to support other facts that is admissible into the record and is sufficient to meet its burden of proof?


When does the new Right-To-Know law take effect? [Section 3104]
The new law was signed on February 14, 2008. Most of the new law took effect on January 1, 2009, but the entire law took effect in three stages:

  • The title, definitions and creation of the Office of Open Records took effect on February 14, 2008.
  • July 1, 2008: All state contracts exceeding $5,000 must be posted on Treasury’s Web site. Each agency must submit to the Treasury these contracts or a summary of thereof.
  • January 1, 2009, the remaining portion of the law.

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What is the single biggest change under the new law? [Section 305]
Agencies now have the burden to establish why a record should not be released. The old law put the burden on a requestor to establish why the record was a public record.

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Does the Office of Open Records have established rules and regulations or guidelines regarding the new law? [Section 504, 1102]
Yes. These guidelines are available on our website, and will serve as guidance until the formal regulations are approved in coming years. OOR intends to gather as much public comment and input as possible prior to the regulations being published in final form.

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How can I request information from my local government or state agency? [Section 703]
You can make a request four ways: mail, fax, e-mail or in person. The request must be sufficiently “specific” to allow the public body to identify what you are seeking.

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Is there a form I can use to use to obtain records? [Section 505]
Yes, a standard Office of Open Records request form is available on this Web site (FORMS) that you can use. A local government agency can use its own form, but they also must accept the Office of Open Records Request form.

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Can a public body ask why a person wants obtain the information? [Section 1308]
No. The law prohibits a public body from requiring a person “to disclose the purpose or motive in requesting access to records.”

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Can a request be denied because the requester is not a citizen of Pennsylvania? [Section 102]
No. Any legal resident of the United States can request a record, including a person with a green card.

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Can a state agency or local agency charge me for copying records? [Section 1307]
Yes. However, the law states that the Office of Open Records will establish fees for duplication. The fee structure is available on this Web site.

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Can a state agency or local agency charge additional fees? [Section 1307]
Generally, no. The law states that, “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by statute, no other fees may be imposed unless the agency necessarily incurs costs for complying with the request, and such fees must be reasonable. No fee may be imposed for an agency’s review of a record to determine whether the record is a public record, legislative record or financial record subject to access in accordance with this act.” If a separate statute authorizes an agency to charge a set amount for a certain type of record, the agency may charge no more than that statutory amount. For example, a Recorder of Deeds may charge a copy fee of 50 cents per uncertified page and $1.50 per certified page under 42 P.S. § 21051.

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Does the OOR recommend state and local agencies take any particular actions to help them be in compliance with the new law? 
Yes.  Appoint an open records officer. Make sure this person is senior level so that he or she can manage requests and be aware of the implication of a request. [Section 502].  Make sure you register that person on our website, at ORO Registration. Create a records management policy and make sure you are in compliance with it. This is the most critical component for local governments to undertake immediately. Understand what your record retention law requires and organize your records. Write a memo to your staff outlining that this new law took effect January 1; it will be a highly monitored law and all employees should make these requests a priority; indicate that the Office of Open Records will be a resource to them for questions. Attend training. Plan to have your open-records officer and other officials attend a training session on this new law. A training schedule is available on this Web site.

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If our local or state agency receives a right-to-know request what must we do to be in compliance with the new law? [Section 502, 703, 901]
Make sure the request is received by the designated open-records officer as fast as possible, preferably the same day it is received by agency staff. The law requires the open-records officer to do the following:

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  • Stamp the date of receipt on the written request.
  • Compute the day on which the five-day period under Section 901 will expire and make a notation of that date on the written request.
  • Maintain an electronic or paper copy of a written request, including all documents submitted with the request until the request has been fulfilled.
  • If the request is denied, the written request shall be maintained for 30 days
  • If an appeal is filed keep the records until a final determination is issued or the appeal is deemed denied.
  • Create a file and keep all of the following:
    • The original request.
    • A copy of the response
    • A record of written communications with the requester

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Are emails public record? [Section 102]
Yes. That does not mean there is wholesale release of e-mail records. It means that an email, like any other record, goes through the same analysis to determine whether it is a public record.

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Can a public body limit the number of requests that a citizen can make? [Section1308(1)].
No. The law states that a state or local agency cannot limit “the number of records which may be requested or made available for inspection or duplication.” However, citizens should use good judgment in seeking records from the public body and not use this law to harass or overburden a public body from performing its job. Also, a public body can deny repeated requests for the same records by the same requester. [Section 506]

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Can a requester ask for records in person?
Yes. However, if a person wishes to take advantage of the appeal process, the request must be in writing.

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Can a requester ask for records by telephone?
Yes. A public body may provide information in this way if they so choose, but they are not required to and a requester may not appeal denial of verbal requests to the OOR.

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Does the Right-to-Know Law provide for due process for agency employees?

Yes. Specifically, Section 502(b)(1) provides that agency open-records officer must “direct [Right-to-Know Law] requests to other appropriate persons within the agency,” which includes affected agency employees. Additionally, Section 707(a) requires agencies to notify “the person that is the subject of the record” if releasing a record containing withholdable information. If additional time is needed to issue a response, agencies can invoke extensions of time pursuant to Section 902(a)(7). As a result, all agencies must provide due process considerations to agency employees affected by a Right-to-Know Law request.

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Are itemized cell phone bills public record?
Yes. The Supreme Court recently upheld that itemized bills for cellular telephones paid by an agency are financial records that show a disbursement of public funds, despite the reimbursement for personal calls paid by the publics. The Court upheld that private telephone numbers (a type of personal identifier) must be redacted from the records before they can be disclosed.

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What are some examples of public records?

  • 911 time response logs
  • Grant Applications
  • Contracts
  • Agreements
  • Agency decisions
  • Name, title, Salary of public employees and officials

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What are some types of information that will NOT be available?

  • Social Security numbers
  • Drivers license numbers
  • Employee numbers
  • Home, cellular or personal phone numbers
  • Personal financial information
  • Spouse’s name, marital status, beneficiary or dependent information
  • Home addresses of law enforcement and judges
  • Identity of confidential informants.
  • Records that identify social service recipients, including welfare recipients
  • A minor’s name, home address, date of birth.
  • Constituent requests to a member of the House or Senate
  • Library circulation cards
  • Pre-decisional deliberations

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Does the new law cover records created before January 1, 2009?
Yes. All records in the possession of an agency are covered even if they are decades old.

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What personal liability does an open-records officer or agency have? [Section 1304, 1305, 1306]
If an agency denies a record in bad faith, the court may impose a civil penalty of up to $1,500 per record. If the agency still refuses to disclose the record, the court may impose a penalty of up to $500 per day until the record is disclosed. In general, an open-records officer is immune from civil penalties for denying a request. However, the court has discretion in regards to imposing penalties and costs for willful and wanton disregard of the law.

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Will the new Right-to-Know Law give me access to adoption records?
No. While vital statistics records are generally subject to the Right-to-Know Law there are statutory provisions enacted to the contrary that would trump the Right-to-Know Law. Birth records are not available. Also, there is a statute that has an exception for any record that identifies the name, home address or date of birth of a child 17 years or younger.

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Are Tax Collectors Considered an "Agency" under the new law?
No. But their records are subject to the law and must be made available as follows.

Local tax collectors are not considered "agencies" under the RTKL due to the Pennsylvania Local Tax Collection Law, 72 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 5511.1-5511.42. 72 P.S. § 5511.4c. entitled "Tax collection records" states as follows: "(c) This section shall not be construed to do any of the following: (1) Make a tax collector an "agency" or authorize requests of the tax collector for records pursuant to the act of June 21, 1957 (P.L. 390, No. 212), referred to as the Right-to-Know Law."

The Commonwealth Court in Current Status Inc. v. Hykel, 778 A.2d 781 (Pa. Cmwlth.) specifically addressed that question under the old RTKL concluding that local tax collectors are not subject to the RTKL. However, while the local tax collector is not itself an agency, the tax records that are maintained by that collector remain agency records, whether of the township, municipality or school district on whose behalf s/he collects.

The Commonwealth Court in Hykel carefully explained that the records of tax collectors are public and can be obtained directly from governmental units that qualify as agencies under the RTKL, just not directly from the tax collector. The records are public and must be provided by the agency to the extent not otherwise protected from disclosure. The agencies have delegated the task of tax collection to the collectors, as a third party, and the records attendant to performing that governmental function cannot be shielded from view even though the tax collector is not itself an agency. It remains the agency’s responsibility to respond to the requester and to furnish copies or perform redaction if needed for any non-public parts of the records.

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If I want records of an Agency should I just send the request to the Office of Open Records?

No. The Office of Open Records does not maintain or control the records of any local or Commonwealth Agency. You must first direct your request to the appropriate office when seeking records. If that local or Commonwealth Agency denies your request, you have a right to file an appeal of the denial with the Office of Open Records. Please consult our Appeals Procedure.

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Are Volunteer Fire Companies and their records subject to the Right-to-Know Law?

Yes and no.  The OOR has held that these records documenting the governmental activity of fire protection are public either through a contract with the municipality or political subdivision (PSD), or because the fire department is deemed a local agency due to its performance of a governmental function. Local agencies are defined under the law to include “similar governmental entities.” Due to their historical status as governmental entities, appellate case law has concluded that a volunteer fire company qualifies as a “local agency” or “local authority” in certain contexts based upon its governmental function and creation or incorporation to perform that function, pursuant to statute or otherwise. Fire companies that are created pursuant to a statute, particularly when incorporated by a PSD, qualify as local authorities as that term has been defined under the Statutory Construction Act.  Fire companies that are incorporated by volunteer fire-men as non-profit corporations have been deemed sufficiently similar to government to qualify as agencies protected under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.  Local volunteer fire companies are therefore directly subject to the RTKL as local agencies.

However, the OOR has been overruled by Courts of Common Pleas, whose holdings are binding in their counties.  There are cases currently pending as well.  Volunteer fire companies are not subject to the RTKL in:  Tioga, Butler and York counties.

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Are Autopsy Reports Public Record?

Yes. The RTKL and the Coroner's Act each provide immediate access to cause and manner of death records. Autopsy reports may be obtained for a fee set by the coroner. The RTKL permits an agency to impose reasonable fees for official certification of copies at the option of the requester.

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How does an agency provide evidence that a record doesn’t exist?
How does an agency provide evidence to support other facts that is admissible into the record and is sufficient to meet its burden of proof?

The law states that the agency has the burden of proving why it is withholding or can’t provide a record. Stating that records do not exist or making other factual assertions isn’t enough for an agency to meet its burden of proof under the Right-to-Know Law when an appeal has been filed.

The Office of Open Records requires an agency to submit a formal attestation made subject to the penalty of perjury to support its assertion.

To help you, we have placed a form of this attestation made subject to the penalty of perjury on our website for your convenience. You can copy this and modify it for your agency’s use.

Form - Attestation of Nonexistence

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