Media Law Handbook

Public Records


2. What is a public record?

1. Access to State and Local Government Documents

North Carolina’s Public Records Law, Chapter 132 of the General Statutes (hereinafter “the Public Records Law”), grants the public and the media a sweeping right of access to most documents made or received by state and local governments. Public records in North Carolina are considered “the property of the people,”[1] and courts have repeatedly declared that the state’s public records law must be construed liberally in favor of disclosure[2] and the exceptions construed narrowly.[3] Despite the Public Records Law’s presumption of robust access, the North Carolina General Assembly has passed many laws exempting certain records from disclosure. This chapter addresses access to records of the legislative and executive branches of state and local governments in North Carolina. Access to court records is addressed in the chapter of this book on access to the judicial process. To obtain access to records of a state or local government outside North Carolina, you should familiarize yourself with that state’s law as access laws vary state by state.[4]

Although many government records, from school board meeting minutes to state procurement contracts, are available to the public, the wide variety of records made or received during the transaction of public business makes it difficult to generalize about access to all records in a government office’s possession. There are frequent disagreements between government officials and the press about whether particular records are public, especially when exemptions to public records laws are unclear or misunderstood. The confusion is complicated by the fact that many public records disputes are resolved out of court, during mediation, or by trial courts that may not issue written opinions. Few appellate court decisions have interpreted the Public Records Law itself. Additionally, dozens of state and federal statutes control some aspect of public access to specific government information. However, the Public Records Law makes one thing clear: Disclosure of public records is the rule, and withholding them from the public and the press is the exception.

[1] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(b).

[2] See, e.g., Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Servs. Corp., 350 N.C. 449, 462, 515 S.E.2d 675, 685 (1999).

[3] See, e.g., News & Observer Pub. Co. v. State ex rel. Starling, 312 N.C. 276, 281, 322 S.E.2d 133, 137 (1984) (“[I]t is clear that the legislature intended to provide that, as a general rule, the public would have liberal access to public records.”); Boney Publishers, Inc. v. Burlington City Council, 151 N.C. App. 651, 655-56, 566 S.E.2d 701, 704 (2002).

[4] The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publishes online a state-by-state guide to open government laws.

2. What is a public record?

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