Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Act
What is the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Act?
Promulgated in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) creates a statutory right of access to the records of federal agencies, allowing requesters to obtain information about an event, company, organization, group, or other persons deceased or living. Pennsylvania’s version of the federal FOIA is known as the Right-to-Know-Law (RTKL). The RTKL provides for access to public records of state and local agencies. Under the RTKL, all documents are presumed to be open to the public except where the governmental agency holding the record can prove otherwise.
The Pennsylvania RTKL was introduced by Senator Dominic Pileggi as SB 1 on March 29, 2007, and later signed into law on February 14, 2008. Although the title and definitions contained in the statute went into effect on February 14, 2008, the central portions of the law took effect from January 1, 2009. The RTKL statutes also established the Office of Open Records (OOR) in February 2008. The OOR is tasked with implementing and enforcing the state's RTKL.
The RKL has undergone several amendments since its promulgation. The most significant change to the law has seen the burden of proof of the public nature of a record removed from requesters. Now, public agencies are burdened with the task of proving that a record is confidential and may not be disclosed to the public. Under the older versions of the RTKL, an appeal of an agency’s decision to deny access to a record was required to be filed at the court, which was typically expensive and far more time-consuming than an appeal to the OOR. Pursuant to the latest amendments, appeals now go to the Office of Open Records in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law was established to improve transparency in the government’s activities and decision-making process. The aim is to foster increased participation in government by the public and increase access to information about individual public employees.
What is Covered Under the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Act?
Any record or information of a commonwealth or local agency not exempted from disclosure by another state or federal is covered under the Pennsylvania Right-to-Know-Law. Under the RTKL, a record is any information documenting the transaction or activity of an agency that is received, created, or retained per law or in connection with the transaction, business, or activity of an agency. The record may be in any physical form or possess any characteristics, such as document, paper, map, letter, book, tape, photograph, film, sound recording, information maintained or stored electronically, and data-processed or image-processed document.
Any agency record that does not fall under one or more of the following categories is a public record under the Pennsylvania RTKL:
- A record not protected by a privilege
- Any record not exempt from disclosure under a different state or federal law, regulation, or judicial order
- Any record not exempt under one or more of the 30 exemptions stipulated under Section 708 of the RTKL.
Specifically, the following commonwealth and local agencies are covered under the Pennsylvania RTKL:
- Commonwealth Agencies: Any department, office, authority, or other parts of the executive branch, state-affiliated entities, independent agencies, such as the Governor, Attorney General, Auditor General, and the Treasury Department.
- Local Agencies: Any political subdivision, charter, intermediate unit, public trade, vocational school, local intergovernmental, municipal or regional agency, authority, council, board commission, or similar governmental entity.
- Legislative Agencies: The Senate, House of Representatives, Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Capitol Preservation Committee, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC), the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission, and other legislative agencies listed in Section 102 of the RTKL.
- Judicial Agencies: Any establishment or office of the unified judicial system, such as Magisterial District Judges and others listed in Section 304 of the RTKL.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Pennsylvania?
Section 708 of the Pennsylvania RTKL outlines specific exemptions under the law. The following categories of records are expressly prohibited from disclosure by public agencies:
- Records relating to loss of funds or personal security: Records that, if made public, may result in the forfeiture of federal or state funds. Additionally, records that are reasonably anticipated to result in a considerable risk of bodily damage to persons or their security upon their release.
- Public Safety Records: Records that, if made public, may compromise homeland security, and public safety or preparedness
- Infrastructure Security Records: Records whose disclosure may put the safety or security of a building, public utility, infrastructure, or information storage system in jeopardy
- Computer Security Records: Records whose disclosure may jeopardize computer security
- Health Records: Individually identifiable health information contained in medical, psychological, and related records.
- Records Relating to Personal Identification: Records containing all or a portion of a person's Social Security number; driver's license number; personal financial information; home, cellular, or personal telephone numbers; personal e-mail addresses; employee numbers or other confidential personal identification numbers; and the name, marital status, beneficiary, or dependent information of a spouse. Additionally, documents that reveal the residences of law enforcement personnel and judges are also prohibited.
- Personnel Records: Letters of recommendation or reference, except those related to appointment to fill a vacancy in an elected or appointed office requiring confirmation by the Pennsylvania Senate. Also, performance reviews, academic transcripts, civil service tests results, job applications for those not hired, grievance materials, and demotion and discharge information.
- Collective Bargaining Records: Records pertaining to collective bargaining strategy and discussions, as well as exhibits and transcripts from arbitration proceedings involving collective bargaining disputes or complaints. Final contract awards and arbitration awards may be disclosed.
- Drafts: Drafts of bills, regulations, resolutions policies, and management ordinances and directives
- Deliberations: Records of an agency's internal, pre-decisional considerations, such as a budget recommendation, a legislative proposal, or the strategy for obtaining approval for such proposals.
- Trade Secrets
- Working Papers: Working papers and notes used only for personal use by a public official or employee, such as messages or routing slips
- Donation Records
- Unpublished Academic Papers
- Academic Transcripts
- Criminal Investigative Records
- Non-Criminal Investigative Records
- 911 Calls
- DNA and RNA
- Minutes: Draft minutes of any public meeting until the agency's next scheduled meeting. Any documentation pertaining to secret, executive-session conversations.
- Appraisals and Reviews: Records pertaining to real estate assessments, engineering estimates, environmental studies, audits, and other analyses relating to a proposed agency lease, purchase, or disposition of real property. The exemption period expires when a final decision is reached.
- Library and Archive Users: The circulation and order records of an identifiable individual or group
- Library and Museum Donors: Rare books, documents, and other items provided as gifts, grants, or bequests, to the degree that the donor imposes a condition.
- Endangered Sites and Species: Records indicating the location of an unknown archaeological site or endangered plant or animal species.
- Contract Bids: Proposals for the acquisition or disposition of supplies, services, or construction prior to contract award or the opening and rejection of all bids. Additionally, certain financial information about the bidders is exempt from disclosure.
- Insurance Records: Records of correspondence between an agency and its insurance carrier, administrative service organization, or risk management office.
- Social Service Records: Records identifying individuals who request for or receive social services, as well as detailing the services and other personal information they receive.
- Legislative Constituent Records: Correspondence between state lawmakers and their constituents, as well as associated records identifying people who need aid or other services.
- Records of Minors: Records containing information relating to the name, date of birth, and home address of a child who is 17 or younger
How Do I File a Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Act Request?
To file an RTKL request in Pennsylvania, follow these steps:
- Determine the agency acting as the record custodian: The first step in filing an RTKL request is to establish which Commonwealth or local agency is the custodian of the record you seek.
- Find the agency Open Records officer: The Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) requires each municipal or Commonwealth agency to designate an Agency Open Records Officer (AORO). Although other agencies refer to this individual as a Right-to-Know Officer, the role is the same. This is the individual to whom you should address your request.
Often, the best place to obtain contact information for the AORO is on the agency's website. If you cannot locate it there or the agency does not maintain a website, do a search of the Office of Open Records' (OOR) database of AOROs. If you are still unable to locate the AORO's contact information, you may address your correspondence to "Agency Open Records Officer" and mail it to the agency's primary address.
- Prepare and submit the request: Certain agencies maintain their own Request for RTKL Forms. It is preferable to use the agency's form where feasible. However, you may also submit a request using the OOR's Standard RTKL Request Form. You may also submit an RTKL request in person, by email, by fax, or by U.S. Mail. Regardless of how you submit the request, check that it is addressed to the AORO. Ensure that your request for records is precise and succinct. Specify as precisely as possible the records you want so that an agency may promptly locate them and assess whether they are public records.
The following are examples of filing RTKL requests in Pennsylvania:
The Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General: The Pennsylvania OAG accepts RTKL requests by mail, facsimile, email, or in-person visits. For fax requests, send requests to (717) 705-7244. Email requests must be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. For mail requests, complete the Printable Request Form and mail it to:
Office of Attorney General
15th Floor, Strawberry Square
Harrisburg, PA 17120
For more information about RTKL requests to the Pennsylvania OAG office, contact the office at (717) 783-1111
The Pennsylvania Department of Health: To file RTKL requests with the health department, visit in person or submit a written request to:
Agency Open Records Officer
PA Department of Health
Rm. 825, Health & Welfare Building
625 Forster Street
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Facsimile: (717) 705-6042
It is recommended that you use the department's Right-to-Know-Law Request Form in completing your request.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Pennsylvania?
The Office of Open Records devised an Official Fee Structure that establishes the fees that an agency may charge under the Right-to-Know Law. In general, agencies are prohibited from charging additional costs. Except as otherwise authorized by legislation, the RTKL provides that no extra fees may be levied unless the agency incurs expenditures in order to comply with the request, and such fees must be fair. No fees may be charged by an agency for evaluating a record in order to establish its accessibility under the RTKL.
Typically, copy fees are billed at $0.50 for color copies and $0.25 for black and white copies. A certification for a copy of a public record attracts an additional $5 per record. Other provisions in the RTKL for fees specifies that:
- The postage fees charged may not exceed the actual cost of mailing
- An agency may establish user fees if the agency offers enhanced electronic access, provided the OOR approves the fee
- An agency is not authorized to charge for the time taken to redact a document or the legal review required to determine if a document is a public record.
- Where fees are expected to exceed $100, an agency may require pre-payment
- An agency may withhold public records if the requestor has not paid for previously requested records.
Per the Pennsylvania RTKL, if a separate act enables an agency to charge a specific fee for a particular kind of record, the agency may not charge more than the specified fee. For example, according to 42 P.S. 21051, a Recorder of Deeds may charge a copy fee of $0.50 for each uncertified page and $1.50 for every certified page.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Pennsylvania?
A commonwealth or local agency has 5 business days to reply in writing:
- Granting the request
- Denying the request and providing a statement citing the legal basis for the denial or partial denial
- Invoking a 30-calendar day extension for specific circumstances.
The 5-business day period is calculated from the day after the receipt of the RTK request during normal business hours. Acceptable causes for a 30-day extension include the following:
- The requested records are stored off-site
- Staffing constraints
- The request requires legal review or redaction
- The request is complicated
- The requester failed to pay the necessary fees or violated agency public record request policy.
If an agency does not reply to a request within the stipulated period, the requester is permitted to presume that access has been denied and may proceed to file an appeal to the Office of Open Records. An appeal must be submitted within 15 business days of the mailing date of the agency's response. Appeals may be submitted to the Office of Open Records at:
333 Market Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101-2234
Appeals may also be sent by facsimile to (717) 425-5343 or by email to email@example.com. Appeals are required to be filed in writing and must include:
- A copy of the original RTK request;
- A copy of the agency's denial letter;
- Information stating why the requestor believes the record is a public record. Note that a general statement that the record is a public record under the RTKL will not suffice; and
- Information addressing all the grounds raised by the agency in its denial. The requestor must also include why the agency's denials, arguments, and exemptions are incorrect.
An appeal may be submitted using the Office of Open Records Appeal Form. Appeals filed by mail must be submitted on an 8 ½ x 11 or 8 ½ x 14-inch paper, except when explicit permissions to use nonconforming papers have been obtained.
The Office of Open Record has 30 days from the date of receipt of the appeal to issue a final determination on the matter. The final determination issued by the OOR is binding on the requester and the agency in question. However, if one of the parties chooses to appeal the ruling, the appeal must be filed with the relevant court within 30 calendar days of the mailing of the OOR's final determination. In an instance where the final determination is appealed to a Commonwealth Court or a Court of Common Pleas, the Pennsylvania RTKL stipulates that the OOR must be served a notice of the appeal.