Media Law Handbook

Public Records


10. What can you do if you are denied access?
8. Can public officials destroy their records?

9. Which records are public records and which are not?

The Public Records Law makes access to records the rule and denial of access the exception. Furthermore, the N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that public agency records are public unless there is a specific statutory exception.[1]

The following is a list of types of records that we are relatively certain are either public or not public. The Public Records Law includes some specific exceptions to its mandate for access. Many state statutes, in addition to the Public Records Law, make specific information either public or not public. Some records are treated as private or confidential. Relevant statutes make it a misdemeanor for a government employee to release such records without a court order. Bottom line: records not included in the list below are presumptively public if they fit the statutory definition of public records. The burden is on the government to justify nondisclosure.

Adoption records. Generally, records created or filed in connection with an adoption are not public records. This includes records on file with the court, with any other government agency, an attorney or other provider of professional services.[2] However, the decree of adoption and the entry in the special proceedings index in the office of the clerk of court are public records. Additionally, criminal background checks and related information pertaining to prospective adoptive parents are considered privileged and not public record.[3]

Adult care home records. Inspections of adult care facilities are public records.[4] However, state law requires the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to protect the confidentiality of all persons who file complaints about adult care home facilities. Furthermore, the records of residents of such facilities used by the department to investigate complaints are not public records.[5]

Advisory board records are public records under the broad protection of the N.C. Public Records Law.

Agriculture records.

Animal health records. The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services collects information from individual farm operators for its animal health programs. Any information collected by the department that could identify the owner of an animal is considered confidential unless either the owner permits disclosure or the State Veterinarian determines that disclosure is necessary to prevent the spread of an animal disease or to protect the public health, or if it is necessary to the implementation of an animal health program.[6] Examples of confidential information include certificates of veterinary inspection and animal medical records, laboratory reports received or generated from samples submitted for analysis. Furthermore, information received by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that is confidential under federal law retains its confidentiality.[7]

Commercial feed formulas. Formulas for commercial feed must be filed with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services,[8] but are not public records if they qualify as trade secrets. A government employee who discloses this information to anyone except an authorized person is guilty of a misdemeanor.[9] (See also Trade secrets.)

Fertilizer records. Anyone selling commercial fertilizer in the state must furnish the state commissioner of agriculture a written statement of the tonnage of each grade of fertilizer sold. This information is not public record.[10]

Forest product processing records. In order to collect assessments, the Department of Revenue reviews the production records of companies that process forest products in the state. Production information related to individual processors is not public record. It is a misdemeanor for a state employee to disclose processor information contained in a production report.[11]

Porcine animal (hog) data. A swine buyer must keep records of the number of animals purchased and the dates they are purchased as part of the process of collecting funds to help promote the state’s pork production industry. That purchase information is reported to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the N.C. Pork Producers Association, but it is not public record. State law mandates that these entities keep confidential all information or records regarding purchases of swine by individual buyers.[12]

Statistical data. The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is required to compile statistical data about agriculture. However, the department is prohibited from releasing data that identify information received from individual farm operators unless the data are compiled by a federal agency and the agency waives confidentiality.[13] 

Amusement records. The state’s Amusement Device Safety Act requires the Commissioner of Labor to inspect and certify the safety of carnival rides and similar amusements. Any information reported to the commissioner in connection with these duties that contains or might reveal a trade secret is confidential.[14] (See also Trade secrets.) 

Animal research records. In 1991 the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill committee’s documents relating to the use and care of animals in scientific research are public records.[15] The documents in question were filed by researchers with the University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (“IACUC”) which decides whether proposed experiments appropriately minimize pain and distress for animals used in research. The committee was created in accordance with federal law to inspect facilities where animals are housed and studied at the University and to review proposed procedures for the care and use of animals in experiments.

            The court ruled that the records did not contain trade secrets that could be withheld from public scrutiny. It also said the First Amendment does not create an academic freedom exception to disclosure of public records. However, the court said that public policy requires that certain non-public information can be deleted from the records before they are released, including: the names of researchers and their staff members, their telephone numbers and addresses, their experience and the names of their departments. It also said that non-approved applications submitted to the IACUC need not be made public. (See also Trade secrets.) 

Antifreeze records. When the Department of Labor receives an application for a license or permit to sell antifreeze in this state, the commissioner may require the applicant to furnish a statement of the contents of the antifreeze. That information is not a public record and may qualify as confidential trade secrets.[16] (See also Trade secrets.)

Archaeological records. The state collects information on the location and nature of archaeological resources, such as rock carvings and Native American burial grounds. Under state statute, that information is public record unless the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources decides “that the disclosures would create a risk of harm to such resources or to the site at which such resources are located.”[17]

Athletic booster club and educational foundation audits. It is the policy of the University of North Carolina system that the annual audits of all foundations linked to constituent institutions of the University are public records. As of 2015, there were 109 foundations across the whole UNC system.[18]

Attorney-client privilege. Written communications from an attorney serving a public body to that public body “made within the scope of the attorney-client privilege” are not public records if those statements concern “any claim against or on behalf of the governmental body or the governmental entity for which such body acts, or concerning the prosecution, defense, settlement or litigation of any judicial action, or any administrative or other type of proceeding to which the governmental body is a party or by which it is or may be directly affected.”[19] Such records become public three years from the date they are received by the government.[20]

In 1992 the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that while state law exempts from public disclosure records of communications from a public body’s attorney to that public body, it does not exempt written communications that travel in the opposite direction, that is, from a public body to its attorney.[21] Also, in 2007 the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that records are not exempt from public inspection merely because town attorneys, and not the town itself, possessed the records.[22]  The court noted that the records in question were public records because they were paid for by the town and were made or received in connection with town business.

Trial-preparation materials. The Public Records Law says that a government records custodian can deny access to a public record that is also trial-preparation material.[23] State law defines trial-preparation material as “documents and tangible things…prepared in anticipation of litigation or for trial”[24] in civil proceedings in state or federal court or in local, state or federal administrative or quasi-judicial proceedings.[25] If the denial of access is based on an assertion that the public record is trial-preparation material that was prepared in anticipation of a legal proceeding that has not commenced, the custodian must, upon request, provide a written justification to that effect.[26] Both before and during legal proceedings, you can petition the court for a determination as to whether the public record is indeed trial-preparation material.[27] At the conclusion of a legal proceeding, including appeals and post-judgment proceedings, or in cases where no legal proceeding has been commenced and all applicable statutes of limitations have expired, the trial preparation material must be made available to the public.[28]

Audit records. Audit reports published by internal audit offices of state agencies are public records,[29] but the underlying work papers are not.[30] Similarly, audit reports of the Department of Health and Human Services are public records, but the related work papers are not.[31]

Autopsy reports and photographs. According to the Public Records Law, “[T]he text of an official autopsy report, including any findings and interpretations,” is a public record.[32] Also, photographs or video or audio recordings of official autopsies are available for public inspection, but they generally cannot be copied by members of the media or the public.[33] An official autopsy is one ordered by a medical examiner, judge or district attorney.[34] Except in certain cases where an official autopsy is in the public interest, such as cases involving deaths in police custody or homicides under the medical examiner’s jurisdiction,[35] reports of autopsies requested by the deceased person’s next-of-kin are considered individual medical records and are not public records.[36]

Anyone denied a copy of autopsy photographs or recordings may initiate a special judicial proceeding to show good cause why a copy should be made available. Considerations in determining good cause include “whether the disclosure is necessary for the public evaluation of governmental performance; the seriousness of the intrusion into the family’s right to privacy and whether the disclosure is the least intrusive means available; and the availability of similar information in other public records, regardless of form.”[37] In North Carolina counties with coroners, the coroner is required by law to file reports of inquests and investigations with the county medical examiner and the district attorney.[38] Therefore the rules above apply to coroners’ reports, too.

Bail bondsmen and runners records. When an insurer terminates the appointment of a bondsman who had been appointed by the insurer to write bail bonds on the insurer’s behalf, the insurer must furnish the commissioner of insurance with a written notice of the termination stating the reasons, if any, for the termination. These notices are not public record.[39] Bail bondsmen who hire licensed runners must file similar notices when they terminate the appointment of a runner. Those notices are not public records either.[40]

Bank, savings and loan, and credit union records. The records of the State Banking Commission’s “official acts, rulings, and transactions” are public records.[41] However, virtually all records related to regulated financial institutions gathered by the Banking Commission are closed under a variety of state statutes. For example, the Commissioner of Banks is required by state law to keep confidential the following types of information related to savings banks:

(1) Information obtained or compiled in connection with an examination, audit, or investigation of any savings bank;

(2) Information reflecting the specific collateral given by a borrower, the amount of stock owned by a stockholder, stockholder lists and deposit accounts held by a named customer;

(3) Information obtained, prepared, or compiled in connection with examination, audit, or investigation of any savings bank by a federal agency, if the records would be confidential under federal law;

(4) Other information and reports submitted by savings banks to federal regulatory agencies, if the records or information would be confidential under federal law;

(5) Information and records regarding complaints from the public that concern savings banks when the complaint would or could result in an investigation;

(6) Any other letters, reports, memoranda, recordings, charts or other documents or records that would disclose any information of which disclosure is prohibited in this subsection.[42]

All records compiled by credit unions, including records of audits and examinations, records that disclose the names of borrowers and records of credit union members who lodge complaints with the state administrator of credit unions, are confidential.[43] Only the information contained in an application for a new credit union is a public record.[44]

The same is true of the records of savings and loan associations.[45] Nothing is public record except the information in an application to establish a savings and loan association. However, the financial statements of the incorporators and any other information deemed by the administrator to be confidential are not public records.[46] Also, compliance review documents in the custody of a savings and loan association or a government regulatory agency are confidential.[47]

Bids for government contracts. The state’s competitive bidding statute, which sets out the procedures to be followed in awarding state contracts, provides that all bids shall be open for public inspection following the award of a contract. However, “trade secrets, test data and similar proprietary information” submitted in connection with the bid may remain confidential.[48] (See also Operating records and contracts.)

Clemency records. The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled in 2007 that the Public Records Law does not apply to records compiled by the governor in connection with the governor’s clemency power.[49] The case began when the News & Observer submitted a public records request to then-Gov. Michael Easley’s office asking for applications for clemency and documents submitted in support of or in opposition to those applications. Easley released the applications, the names of those supporting each application, and documents granting clemency. However, he refused to release documents submitted to his office in support of or opposition to clemency applications. The appeals court viewed the dispute as a separation of powers issue between the governor and the legislature. The court said the N.C. Constitution clearly gives the governor the power to grant clemency and the legislature the limited power to enact laws “relative to the manner of applying for pardons”[50] which did not include the power to encroach upon the governor’s clemency powers through legislation not tied directly to pardon applications. Therefore, the Public Records Law, which does not mention clemency, does not apply to the governor’s clemency records.

Community college records. Unless specifically made confidential by another statute, all records of the State Board of Community Colleges, the Community Colleges System office and the local boards of trustees are public records.[51] Additionally, “documents submitted to the North Carolina Community College System’s Small Business Center Network by an individual seeking business counseling or technical assistance and documents created by the Network to provide the individual with counseling and technical assistance” are not public records.[52] Student education records are not public records. (See also Education records.)

Competitive health care information. Information concerning the competitive health care activities of public health authorities[53] and public hospitals[54] is confidential. However, any contract entered into by or on behalf of a public health authority or public hospital is a public record unless exempted by statute.[55] A public hospital or hospital authority requested to disclose a contract may redact competitive health care information or, if the entire contract constitutes competitive health care information, refuse to disclose the entire contract.[56] Also, the financial terms and related competitive health care information of a health services contract between a hospital or medical school and a managed care organization, insurance company, employer or other payer are not public record.[57]

In 2006 the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital’s written agreement to purchase a private medical practice was a public record, not confidential competitive health care information.[58] Such contracts entered into by a public hospital are exempt from the public records law only if they contain competitive health care information. The court said: “[T]he contract here is a contract with a public hospital to purchase a medical practice. There is nothing in the record to suggest that other hospitals or entities were competing for [the] medical practice, and therefore nothing to suggest this contract contained ‘financial terms’ or health care information directly related to financial terms such that this contract should be kept confidential…. We do not think the legislature intended such business dealings – which do not involve trade secret information nor competitive price lists – to be kept confidential.”[59] (See also Trade secrets.)

Controlled substance reporting system records. The Public Records Law exempts from public disclosure information maintained in the state’s controlled substance reporting system, which tracks the sale of prescription drugs.[60] 

Controlled substance research subject records. The Department of Health and Human Services may authorize the withholding of the names and identifying characteristics of persons who are research subjects for studies of the use and effects of controlled substances.[61]

Controller compliance review records. The state controller may review a state agency’s compliance with state accounting system standards. “Work papers and other supportive material created as a result of a compliance review conducted by the state controller” are not public.[62] However, any report “resulting from a compliance review is a public record.”[63]

Corporate information disclosed through interrogatories. The N.C. Business Corporation Act, the Non-Profit Corporation Act and the Limited Liability Company Act, all of which regulate businesses operating in the state, authorize the secretary of state to issue interrogatories to any corporation to determine whether it is subject to one of these acts. Neither the interrogatories nor the answers are public records.[64]

Design professionals’ seals. The Public Records Law prohibits any municipality or county in the state from revealing the seal of a licensed design professional when the municipality or county has received the seal on a design project submitted for approval.[65] This is intended to prevent the fraudulent use of the seals. However, copies of documents without the seal may be examined and copied.[66]

DNA records. DNA profiles and samples submitted to the Crime Laboratory DNA Database and Databank are not public records.[67] (See also Law enforcement records.)

Economic development records. The Public Records Law states explicitly that government documents relating to general economic development policies or activities are public records. However, records related to “the proposed expansion or location of specific business or industrial projects may be withheld so long as their inspection, examination or copying would frustrate the purpose for which such public records were created.”[68] The burden is on the custodian of the document “to show that disclosure would frustrate the purpose of attracting that particular business or industrial project.”[69] If the Department of Commerce contracts with a nonprofit corporation in the state to expand economic opportunities, the nonprofit’s records are subject to the Public Records Law.[70] However, similar to economic development records generally, records in the custody of the Department of Commerce or a nonprofit entity with which the department contracts may be withheld if disclosure would frustrate the purposes of economic expansion.[71]

In 2005 the law was amended to provide the public an opportunity to respond to the specifics of an incentives-based deal before the General Assembly approves the deal. The law now states, “Once the State, a local government, or the specific business has announced a commitment by the business to expand or locate a specific project in this State or a final decision not to do so and the business has communicated that commitment or decision to the State or local government agency involved with the project, the provisions of this subsection allowing public records to be withheld by the agency no longer apply.”[72] The government then must disclose as soon as practicable – and in any event within 25 business days – all requested public records for the announced project that are not otherwise made confidential by law.

In practice, it is not always clear whether a final decision on a business relocation or expansion project has been reached, triggering disclosure provisions. In 2018, North Carolina was rumored to be in the running for an Apple expansion project that Apple ultimately located in Austin, Texas. Reporters asked the state commerce department for related records and state officials denied the request, citing ongoing discussions about expansion opportunities with Apple.[73] More than two years after the Austin announcement, Apple announced it would locate a new facility in the Research Triangle Park and state officials disclosed records related to that project.

An announcement that a business or industrial project has committed to expand or locate in the state does not require disclosure of local government records relating to the project if the business has not selected a specific location for the project. Once a specific location for the project has been determined, local government records must be disclosed. Local government records include records maintained by the state that relate to a local government’s efforts to attract the project.[74] The Public Records Law further stipulates that “whenever a public agency or its subdivision performs a cost-benefit analysis or similar assessment with respect to economic development incentives offered to a specific business or industrial project, the agency…must describe in detail the assumptions and methodologies used in completing the analysis….”[75] That information becomes public record at the same time as other records related to the offering of economic development incentives.

Education records. 

FERPA. State law clearly says that unless there is a statutory exception, the state’s Public Records Law applies to the records of the state’s public school systems.[76]  One clear exception is individual student education records, which are permanently retained and kept confidential under state[77] and federal law.[78] The federal law is the Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act of 1974. Sometimes called the Buckley Amendment or FERPA, the law prohibits the disclosure of education records of students to anyone except a student’s parent or a student over 18 years of age without the consent of a parent or the adult student. The law applies to all schools that receive federal funds. The key question, however, is what qualifies as an “education record.”

Numerous cases challenging the withholding of school records under FERPA have been litigated across the country, and many of them have centered on the question of what constitutes an education record. In 2011 N.C. Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr. ruled that records of parking tickets issued to UNC-CH football players and student telephone numbers that might appear on the telephone records related to University-provided telephones used by football coaches and the athletic director were not education records protected from public disclosure by FERPA.[79] The decision resulted from a lawsuit filed by eight media organizations seeking records relating to an NCAA investigation of the UNC-CH football program.

Manning said in his order that education records are defined by federal statute as “those records, files, documents, and other materials that (i) contain information directly related to a student; and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution.”[80] Manning also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has said the word “maintain” means that “FERPA records will be kept in a filing cabinet in a records room at the school or on a permanent secure database….”[81] Manning concluded, “FERPA does not provide a student with an invisible cloak so that the student can remain hidden from public view while enrolled at UNC-CH.”[82] Manning did, however, rule that records of the names, employment dates and salaries of current students employed as tutors for UNC-CH athletes were protected by FERPA.[83]

In 2020, the N.C. Supreme Court held that FERPA did not shield certain records of students who violated a school’s sexual assault policy.[84] The decision resulted from a lawsuit filed by four news organizations seeking all public records of students “found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser included sexual misconduct” at UNC-CH.[85] After a back-and-forth with UNC-CH, the media organizations narrowed their request to the names of the students, dates of the offenses, nature of the violation, and the sanctions imposed.[86] The court found that FERPA did not grant university officials discretion to withhold records deemed public under North Carolina law, and that all of the information requested by the media organizations was public record except for the dates of the offenses, which did not fall under any categories of disclosable information under FERPA.[87]

Personally identifiable information in admissions applications. The Public Records Law was amended in 2007 to exempt from public disclosure personally identifiable information from or about applicants to the state’s public universities and community colleges.[88] The amended statute created one exception to that rule: any letter of recommendation or record containing a communication from an elected official to a school concerning an applicant who has not enrolled as a student is subject to disclosure. Also, the amendment states that the change in the law does not “limit the disclosure of public records that do not contain personally identifiable information…or from which it is feasible to redact any personally identifiable information that the record contains.”[89]

Scholarship Information. Non-public elementary and secondary scholarship applications and personally identifiable information of students receiving scholarship grants are not public records.[90]

Tests. All unreleased tests “developed, adopted, or provided by the State Board of Education” are not public records.[91]

Test scores. Also confidential under state law are the identifiable scores of any student on any test taken pursuant to state law, except as permitted under FERPA.[92]

Textbook lists. The textbook lists for state universities are public, according to an opinion of the state attorney general. The attorney general rejected North Carolina State University’s (“NCSU”) argument that confidential textbook lists were needed to create a monopoly bookstore business in order to earn profits to be used for scholarships.[93]

Uniform Education Reporting System. The identification of military-connected students in the UERS is not a public record. A military-connected student is defined as “a student enrolled in a local school administrative unit who has a parent, step-parent, sibling, or any other person who resides in the same household serving in the active or reserve components of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or National Guard.”[94]

University honor court records. The student newspaper at UNC-CH went to court to seek access to the proceedings and records of the University’s undergraduate court, commonly known as the honor court. The newspaper wanted to hear the case being brought against two students who allegedly stole approximately 1,500 copies of a student magazine from campus magazine racks in 1996. The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the student court was not constitutionally obligated to conduct all business in the open. Instead, the court ruled the honor court was a public body obligated to comply with the N.C. Open Meetings Law, which permits closed sessions to prevent the disclosure of information that is confidential under state and federal privacy laws, including FERPA.[95]

Election records.

Absentee and mail-in ballot registries. Each county’s registry of one-stop absentee ballot applications, ballots issued and identities of people who voted by absentee ballot is a public record and must be open to inspection by any registered voter of the county at any time within 60 days before and 30 days after an election in which absentee ballots were authorized, or at any other time when there is good and sufficient reason for its inspection.[96]  The official registry of mail-in absentee ballots is confidential up until the opening of the voting place in accordance with state election law. Also, the chairman of each county board of elections must compile a list of executed absentee ballots, one copy of which must be available for public inspection in the board office, and the chief election judge of each precinct is required to “post one copy of the list immediately in a conspicuous location in the voting place.”[97] These lists must be retained by the county board of elections for a period of 22 months; then they may be destroyed.[98]

Campaign finance reports. Campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections on behalf of candidates, campaign committees and political action committees are public records.[99]

Voter registration records. Voter registration rolls are public records and are available from the State Board of Elections or from county elections boards. State statute says that each “county board of elections shall provide to any person a list of the registered voters of the county or of any precinct or precincts in the county.”[100] County boards also may furnish selective lists according to “party affiliation, gender, race, date of registration, precinct name, precinct identification code, congressional district, senate district, representative district, and, where applicable, county commissioner district, city governing board district, fire district, soil and water conservation district, and voter history including primary, general, and special districts, or any other reasonable category.”[101]

Upon written request and payment of costs and a service charge, the State Board of Elections may furnish a statewide computerized voter registration database or selective lists of registered voters according to county, congressional or legislative district, party affiliation, gender or age but not date of birth, race or date of registration.[102] Electronically captured images of the signatures of voters, full or partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers that are generated in the voter registration process by either the State Board of Elections or a county board of elections are not public records.[103]

Elevator inspection records. Information obtained by the commissioner of labor in connection with elevator inspections is not a public record if that information contains a trade secret.[104] (See also Trade secrets.)

Email. Although no state statute explicitly addresses whether government employees’ emails are public record, email clearly falls within the Public Records Law’s definition of public records: “documents, papers, letters…regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received…in connection with the transaction of public business.”[105]

Emergency response plans. “Emergency response plans adopted by a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina, a community college or a public hospital” and the records related to the development of those plans are not public records.[106]

Employment security records. Unemployment compensation information, claim information, and personally identifiable information in the records of the Division of Employment Security that pertain to the administration of the Employment Security Law are not public records.[107] Also, the Department of Commerce, Labor and Economic Analysis Division’s data about current and former participants in state job training, education and placement programs are not public records.[108] Statistical reports issued by the agency are public records.[109]

Energy records. The Department of Administration has the authority to obtain petroleum supply data for North Carolina from suppliers of petroleum products. Individually identifiable energy information – defined as “any individual record or portion of a record or aggregated data containing energy information about a person or persons obtained from any source, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to reveal information about a specific person” – is not a public record.[110]

Escheated and abandoned property records. The state treasurer has authority to examine the records of insurers, banks and other holders of abandoned property or escheated property, which is property that has reverted to the state upon the death of an owner who had neither a will nor a legal heir. Documents and working papers obtained or compiled by the treasurer in the course of such an examination are not public records.[111] Each year the state treasurer must provide each clerk of court a list of escheated and abandoned property. The supporting data and the identities of apparent owners of escheated and abandoned property may be kept confidential for twelve months after the information is given to the clerks of court except in the case of persons requesting information about their own property.[112]

Ethics Commission records. Some of the records of the state Ethics Commission, which is charged with ensuring that elected and appointed state agency officials avoid conflicts of interest, are not public records. Specifically, “[c]omplaints and responses filed with the Commission and reports and other investigative documents and records of the Commission connected to an inquiry” are confidential prior to the commencement of a hearing, or if a hearing does not occur, imposition of public sanctions. The only exception to this is when the person being investigated requests in writing that the records and findings be made public.[113] If and when public sanctions are imposed, the complaint, response and commission’s report to the employing agency become public records.[114]

Also, requests for advisory opinions, advisory opinions, supporting documents submitted to the Ethics Commission, and documents “prepared or collected by the Commission or Commission staff in connection with a request for advice” are not public records.[115] Unless the requestor consents, the identity of the person requesting advice and any information related to the request are confidential.[116]

Eugenics Board records. Records held by the state concerning the N.C. Eugenics Board program are not public records. This includes “records identifying (i) individuals impacted by the program, (ii) individuals, or their guardians or authorized agents, inquiring about the impact of the program on the individuals, or (iii) individuals, or their guardians or authorized agents, inquiring about the potential impact of the program on others.”[117] This does not prevent a person impacted by the program, or their guardian or authorized agent, from obtaining his or her own records. Appropriately redacted minutes and reports of the Eugenics Committee can be released as public records.[118]

Fire investigation records. Fire incident reports compiled by local fire chiefs and fire marshals are public records.[119] Fire investigation records, however, are not. For example, fire insurance companies are required by law to report suspicious fires to fire chiefs, fire marshals or the SBI. Government officials then are obligated by law to keep that information confidential.[120] Another state statute says the fire investigation records of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner are not public records.[121]

Fishing industry records. Because the state’s fishing industry comprises private businesses, its records generally are not subject to public disclosure under the Public Records Law. Some records can become public, however, when they are submitted to the government. The Division of Marine Fisheries in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources may require licensed fisheries to keep records of their operations to help the department develop conservation policy. Generally, those records are not subject to disclosure. All records compiled by the department from reports of licensees or from investigations and inspections are confidential, including those “containing data and information concerning the business and operations of licensees reflecting their assets, liabilities, inventories, revenues, and profits; the number, capacity, capability, and type of fishing vessels owned and operated; the type and quantity of fishing gear used; the catch of fish or other seafood by species in numbers, size, weight, quality, and value; the areas in which fishing was engaged in; the location of catch; the time of fishing, number of hauls, and the disposition of the fish and other seafood.”[122] Statistical reports that do not identify licensees are public records, however.[123]

Funeral contracts. The names and addresses of the purchasers and beneficiaries of pre-need funeral contracts filed with the N.C. Board of Funeral Service are not public records.[124] Financial information provided by funeral establishments to show solvency in connection with a required bond is also not a public record.[125]

General Assembly records. The state’s Public Records Law applies to the General Assembly, with some exceptions:

(1) Legislators’ requests for legislative employees to draft legislation are confidential. Neither the identity of the legislator making the request nor the existence of the request may be revealed without the consent of the legislator.[126]

(2) An information request made to a legislative employee by a legislator is confidential. Neither the identity of the legislator making the request nor the existence of the request may be revealed without the consent of the legislator. However, the periodic publication by the Fiscal Research Division of the Legislative Services Office of a list of information requests is not prohibited, if the identity of the legislator making the request is not revealed.[127]

(3) Supporting documents submitted or caused to be submitted to a legislative employee by a legislator in connection with a drafting or information request are confidential. Neither the document nor copies of it, nor the identity of the person, firm or association producing it, may be provided to any person who is not a legislative employee without the consent of the legislator.[128]

(4) Any document prepared by legislative employees at the request of a legislator is confidential.[129] Such a document becomes available to the press and the public only when a) it is a bill or resolution that has been introduced; or b) it is a proposed amendment or committee substitute for a bill or resolution and it has been offered at a committee meeting or on the floor of a house; or c.) it is a proposed conference committee report and it has been offered at a joint meeting of the conference committees; or d.) it is a bill, resolution, memorandum, written analysis, letter or other document resulting from a drafting or information request and it has been distributed at a public meeting of a legislative commission, a standing committee or a subcommittee or on the floor of a house.[130]

(5) A request to a state agency employee made by an employee of the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division for assistance in the preparation of a fiscal note is confidential. Documents prepared by the employee in response to the request also are confidential until the Fiscal Research Division releases a fiscal note based on the documents.[131]

When giving testimony, current and former legislative employees may not disclose any information that they acquired in the course of their employment in a “standing, select, or conference committee or subcommittee” or legislative commission, on the floor of the General Assembly, in the office of a legislator, at any location in any building of the legislature or on the legislative grounds, or through confidential communication. They may, however, reveal information that is already public record, or publicly disseminated. Subject to statutory and common law privileges, they may also reveal information if a judge compels disclosure and it is necessary to the “proper administration of justice.”[132] Notwithstanding restrictions on legislative drafting and information requests generally, documents concerning redistricting the General Assembly or the state’s congressional districts (including drafting and information requests to legislative employees) are public records once the redistricting plan is ratified.[133]

The records of the Legislative Ethics Committee are generally not considered public records. The “complaint, response, records, and findings of the Committee” related to allegations of unethical conduct by a legislator are confidential and not matters of public record unless the legislator under inquiry gives their consent. Once a hearing commences, however, the complaint and all other documents offered at the hearing are made public records.[134] If no hearing takes place, the complaint, response and the Committee’s report will become public when sanctions are recommended to that legislator’s house.[135] If an investigation is initiated by the Legislative Ethics Committee, the notice provided to the commission is considered confidential and not public record.[136] The attorney general has opined that correspondence sent to legislators by their constituents is public.[137] In 2018, the ACLU of North Carolina filed a public records lawsuit seeking access to a North Carolina legislator’s constituent correspondence.[138] After six months, the parties settled and the legislator agreed to produce the records unredacted.

Geographical information systems. These complex mapping systems developed by counties are public and available electronically. A public agency may require that the information not be resold or used for trade or commercial purposes, but those purposes do not include publication by the news media. Also, the government may charge a “reasonable cost” for providing the data.[139]

Governor’s records. As a general rule, records of the governor and other executive branch officials are public and there appear to be no statutes or court decisions that confer any special “executive privilege.” However, in 2007 the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that a governor’s records compiled in connection with the governor’s clemency power are not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Law.[140]  (See also Clemency records.)

Gun permits. Sheriffs are required to keep records of all gun permits they issue, including the name, date, current and former place of residence, age, etc., of each permit holder, as well as the date the permit was revoked, the date the permittee received notice of the revocation, whether the permit was surrendered, and the reason for the revocation, if applicable.[141] Such records are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law. However, sheriffs shall make permit records available to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies upon request and shall make records available to the court if the records are required to be released under court order.[142]

Health care facility and service inspection records. Many records related to inspections of government-regulated health care facilities and services are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law. Such facilities and services include mental health facilities,[143] hospitals,[144] nursing homes,[145] home care agencies,[146] ambulatory surgical facilities,[147] cardiac rehabilitation programs[148] and local confinement facilities (jails or similar detention centers).[149] Typically records concerning individual clients and records identifying individuals who have complained about a facility licensed by the state are confidential.[150]

Homeland security records. In 2002, the General Assembly amended the Public Records Law to prevent the release of sensitive public security information. The following records are exempt from disclosure to maintain public security: 1) information containing specific details of public security plans and arrangements or the detailed plans and drawings of public buildings and infrastructure facilities or plans, schedules, or other documents that include information regarding patterns or practices associated with executive protection and security; 2) security information or detailed plans, patterns, or practices associated with prison operations; 3) security information or detailed plans, patterns, or practices to prevent or respond to criminal, gang, or organized illegal activity; 4) plans to prevent or respond to terrorist activity, to the extent such records set forth vulnerability and risk assessments, potential targets, specific tactics, or specific security or emergency procedures; 5) mobile telephone numbers issued by a local, county, or State government to a sworn law enforcement officer or non-sworn employee of a public law enforcement agency, an employee of a fire department or any employee whose duties include responding to an emergency.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned exemptions, information related to the general adoption of public security plans, budgetary information related to expenditures required to implement public security plans and records related to the construction, renovation, or repair of public buildings and infrastructure facilities are public records.[151] (See also Emergency response plans.)

Hospital administrative records. If a hospital is a “public agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions,” the hospital’s business and administrative records are public records. Owing to the varied and complex organizational structures of healthcare systems, numerous questions have arisen in recent years as to whether certain hospitals are subject to the Public Records Law. In some cases, the governing bodies of hospitals concede that the hospital itself is a public agency but assert that affiliated operations and businesses — such as subsidiaries that own and operate medical office buildings — are not. These questions have become further complicated since the passage in 1983 of a comprehensive re-codification of the state statutes governing public hospitals.[152] Among other things, this chapter authorizes local governments to lease, sell or convey public hospitals to non-profit corporations, provided the corporations agree to operate the hospital for the benefit of the public and provided that the conveyance includes reversionary rights in the event that the non-profit corporation fails to meet its obligations.[153]

The Court of Appeals has provided some guidance by applying the Public Records Law to a hospital that claimed that it was not a public agency within the meaning of the Public Records Law. In News & Observer Publishing Co. v. Wake County Hospital System, [154] the Court of Appeals defined a public agency as “any administrative unit with substantial independent authority in the exercise of specific functions. Administrative entities that perform neither rule-making nor adjudicative duties also may be agencies.”[155] The court applied that definition to the Wake County Hospital System, Inc., which was established by Wake County to provide medical care to the general public, including the poor, and found the hospital to be a public agency whose documents are public records. The court acknowledged that the hospital was organized as a private, non-profit corporation and was an independent contractor but concluded that it was so intertwined financially and administratively with the county government as to be a public agency. The county owned the hospital building and leased it to the hospital corporation for $1 per year, reviewed and approved the hospital’s annual budget, financed the hospital through county bonds, approved the members of the hospital’s board of directors, audited its books and was to receive the hospital’s assets if the hospital was dissolved. Also, the hospital system was not authorized to alter its corporate existence or amend its articles of incorporation without the county’s written consent.

The Wake County hospital case indicates that North Carolina’s courts, in assessing whether a particular hospital is a public agency, will closely scrutinize the details of the hospital’s corporate structure, operating agreements and funding in order to evaluate the ties between the hospital and government. The Court of Appeals said that “a corporate entity may be considered an agency of government” if its ties to the government are sufficient to make it an arm of the government. In other words, a public agency cannot divest itself of its public character merely by choosing the corporate form of organization.[156]

Illegitimate children, information concerning. No district attorney, assistant district attorney, attorney appointed to assist a district attorney or agent or employee of a district attorney’s office may disclose any information connected with an illegitimate child or the child’s parents except in the performance of the district attorney’s duties.[157]

Industrial Commission records. The records of the N.C. Industrial Commission, which adjudicates worker compensation claims, are confidential if they refer to accidents, injuries or settlements. The notable exceptions are that the records of awards to workers and records of any commission review of those awards are public records.[158] In 2012, the General Assembly amended the statute to make clear that with respect to policies becoming effective on or after January 1, 2012, the Commission “may release data showing workers compensation insurance policy information that includes only policy effective dates, policy cancellation dates, and policy reinstatement dates.”[159] This information is public record.

Innocence Inquiry Commission records. Records of investigations conducted by the Innocence Inquiry Commission are exempt from the law’s general mandate for public access.[160]

Insurance commissioner’s records. A state law says the insurance commissioner’s records are public except for those records compiled as part of an investigation of arson, unlawful burning or fraud,[161] or records provided as part of insurers’ annual reports related to surety bondsmen.[162] However, more than a dozen other state statutes address the status of the commissioner’s records and remove many of them from the public realm. For example, one statute says that patients’ medical records are confidential. Patient medical records include personal information that relates to an individual’s physical or mental condition, medical history or medical treatment that has been obtained from the individual patient, a health care provider, or from the patient’s spouse, parent or legal guardian.[163] Also, information related to the credentialing of medical professionals that is in the possession of the commissioner’s office is confidential and not a public record.[164] Additionally, reports concerning the solvency of health maintenance organizations seeking to do insurance business in North Carolina are not public records.[165] (See also Medical records and Investigative (non-law enforcement) records and University of North Carolina liability insurance records.)

Investigative (non-law enforcement) records. Whether government agencies can legally withhold some or all of the information they collect during an investigation often is explicitly dictated by state statute. For example, a state statute prohibits the Utilities Commission staff from revealing any information gathered in the course of an examination or inspection except as directed by the commission or a court.[166] Another statute provides for the public disclosure of any report of the Department of Insurance’s examination of an insurance company once the company has been given 30 days to respond to the report.[167] However, working papers, recorded information and other documents used by the commission to prepare its report are not public.[168] N.C. Department of Labor records regarding investigations and enforcement proceedings conducted pursuant to the state Wage and Hour Act are not public while the investigations and proceedings are pending.[169] Agricultural operation investigation records and complaints made about violations are confidential, and may only be released by a court.[170]

Investigative records of the North Carolina Cemetery Commission are confidential, with the exception of notices and statements of charges against license holders and applicants, and information admitted into evidence in hearings held by the Commission.[171]

Investigations made by the Geologists Licensing Board are confidential until the Board takes disciplinary action. “Records, papers, and other documents containing information collected or compiled by the Board, its members, or employees” in the pursuit of an investigation are not public records with the exception of notices and statements of hearings and information admitted into evidence in hearings held by the Board.[172] (See also Bank, savings and loan, and credit union records.)

Law enforcement records. The Public Records Law clearly states that the following law enforcement agency information is public:

(1) The time, date, location and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.

(2) The name, sex, age, address, employment and alleged violation of law of a person arrested, charged, or indicted.

(3) The circumstances surrounding an arrest, including the time and place of the arrest, whether the arrest involved resistance, possession or use of weapons, or pursuit, and a description of any items seized in connection with the arrest.

(4) The contents of “911” and other emergency telephone calls received by or on behalf of public law enforcement agencies, except for such contents that reveal the natural voice, name, address, telephone number, or other information that may identify the caller, victim or witness.  The natural-voice exception was added to the law in 2011. A related change in the law states that the contents of “911” and other emergency telephone calls can be released in the form of a written transcript or altered voice reproduction.[173] Law enforcement agencies are not required to keep tape recordings of “911” or other communications for more than 30 days unless ordered to do so by the court.[174]

(5) The contents of communications between or among employees of public law enforcement agencies that are broadcast over the public airways.

(6) The name, sex, age and address of a complaining witness.[175]

(7) Arrest and search warrants that have been returned by law enforcement agencies, indictments, criminal summons, and nontestimonial identification orders.[176]

To withhold the information listed above, a law enforcement agency must obtain a court order. The agency bears the burden of demonstrating to the court that disclosure “will jeopardize the right of the State to prosecute a defendant or the right of a defendant to receive a fair trial or will undermine an ongoing or future investigation….”[177]

In 2016, the General Assembly added a new section dealing with law enforcement agency recordings, including dash and body camera footage.[178] Such recordings are not considered public records, nor are they personnel records.[179] Recordings may be disclosed to specific persons in accordance with the statute, and the person who receives the disclosure may not record or copy the recording.[180] Law enforcement agencies “may charge a fee to offset the cost incurred by it to make a copy of a recording for release” so long as that fee does not exceed the actual cost of making the copy.[181] Public disclosures can only be made by court order.[182] Persons eligible to receive the disclosed recordings are:

(1) A person whose image or voice is in the recording.

(2) A personal representative of an adult person whose image or voice is in the recording, if the adult person has consented to the disclosure.

(3) A personal representative of a minor or of an adult person under lawful guardianship whose image or voice is in the recording.

(4) A personal representative of a deceased person whose image or voice is in the recording.

(5) A personal representative of an adult person who is incapacitated and unable to provide consent to disclosure.[183]

The law enforcement agency will only disclose the recordings if one of the above people makes the request in writing to “head of the custodial law enforcement agency that states the date and approximate time of the activity captured in the recording or otherwise identifies the activity with reasonable particularity sufficient to identify the recording to which the request refers.”[184]

            When determining whether to disclose the recording, the law enforcement agency may consider:

(1) If the person requesting disclosure of the recording is a person authorized to receive disclosure pursuant to subsection (c) of this section.

(2) If the recording contains information that is otherwise confidential or exempt from disclosure or release under State or federal law.

(3) If disclosure would reveal information regarding a person that is of a highly sensitive personal nature.

(4) If disclosure may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person.

(5) If disclosure would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice.

(6) If confidentiality is necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.[185]

If the law enforcement agency denies a request to disclose a recording or portion of a recording, or if they do not respond after three business days, the person seeking the disclosure “may apply to the superior court in any county where any portion of the recording was made for a review of the denial of disclosure. The court may conduct an in-camera review of the recording.”[186] If the court finds that the law enforcement agency abused its discretion in denying the disclosure, the court “may only order disclosure of those portions of the recording that are relevant to the person’s request.”[187]

            Anyone eligible to ask for disclosure of a recording and the custodial law enforcement agency can “petition the superior court in any county where any portion of the recording was made for an order releasing the recording to a person authorized to receive disclosure.”[188] The court will then determine if the person to whom the release is requested is authorized to receive it, and then consider the factors listed below, releasing only the portions of the recording that are relevant. The court can place appropriate restrictions and conditions on the release of the recording, such as a narrowly tailored order limiting further disclosure. In a 2019 case involving the body cam law arising out of arrests in Greensboro, the Court of Appeals upheld a limited gag order that prohibited city officials from discussing the contents of the video except as part of their official duties. The court stated that “the discretionary restrictions allowed by Section 132-1.4A seek to protect the interests of those depicted in the information being released. In this case, protecting the reputation and safety of those individuals, as well as safeguarding the administration of justice, presents a substantial government interest for which the trial court’s restrictions are no greater than necessary.”[189]

If the person requesting the recording is not in one of the five categories in section (c), they “may file an action in the superior court in any county where any portion of the recording was made for an order releasing the recording. The request for release must state the date and approximate time of the activity captured in the recording, or otherwise identify the activity with reasonable particularity sufficient to identify the recording to which the action refers.”[190] The court will consider the following factors and the court may place restrictions on the recording.

(1) Release is necessary to advance a compelling public interest.

(2) The recording contains information that is otherwise confidential or exempt from disclosure or release under State or federal law.

(3) The person requesting release is seeking to obtain evidence to determine legal issues in a current or potential court proceeding.

(4) Release would reveal information regarding a person that is of a highly sensitive personal nature.

(5) Release may harm the reputation or jeopardize the safety of a person.

(6) Release would create a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice.

(7) Confidentiality is necessary to protect either an active or inactive internal or criminal investigation or potential internal or criminal investigation.

(8) There is good cause shown to release all portions of a recording.[191]

In a case out of Mecklenburg County, the Superior Court granted a petition by Doug Miller, Deputy City Editor and Investigations Editor of The Charlotte Observer, for the release of dashboard camera footage that captured the killing of Michael Laney by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers.[192] The Court used the balancing test above, and found that the following relevant enumerated factors were critical to the analysis: (1) the recordings related to matters of public interest, namely a shooting of a civilian by a police officer and law enforcement protocol for dealing with people with mental illnesses;[193] (4) “The Recordings contain information of a highly sensitive personal nature in that they involve the fatal shooting of an individual,” and they depict the victim’s clothing being removed;[194] (6) in light of the availability of jury selection controls as well as other alternatives available to a trial court for ensuring a fair and impartial jury in the event of a jury trial, disclosure did threaten a fair trial;[195] (7) the release of the recordings would not interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation because investigators had sufficient time to interview the material witnesses and two of the primary eyewitnesses were Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers.[196] The court ordered portions of the footage redacted and provided Laney’s family an opportunity to review the recording before release to Miller. Thereafter, Miller was permitted to release the recordings to the public.[197]

A federal district court ordered that law enforcement agency recordings be produced under a protective order in Thompson v. City of Charlotte, stating that “any documents, law enforcement agency recordings, and information that otherwise would be withheld pursuant to [N.C. Gen. Stat § 132-1.4A] shall be produced in accordance with this Consent Protective Order.”[198]

            Notwithstanding any of the above, law enforcement agencies must disclose recordings to a district attorney “(i) for review of potential criminal charges, (ii) in order to comply with discovery requirements in a criminal prosecution, (iii) for use in criminal proceedings in district court, or (iv) for any other law enforcement purpose,”[199] and the law enforcement agencies may disclose recordings in the following circumstances: (1) for law enforcement training purposes; (2) within the custodial law enforcement agency for any administrative, training, or law enforcement purpose; (3) to another law enforcement agency for law enforcement purposes; (4) for suspect identification or apprehension; (5) to locate a missing or abducted person.[200]

Attorney general’s pre-prosecution investigative files. The N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled that the state attorney general’s pre-prosecution investigative files can be withheld from the public to protect individual privacy.[201] During the 1970s, the attorney general investigated the possible misuse of corporate funds by Southern Bell. Southern Bell went to court and obtained a protective order to prohibit the attorney general from releasing his investigative files to the press and the public. The company argued that information in the files was based on evidence that would be inadmissible in a judicial proceeding and might unfairly implicate company employees and invade employee privacy. The Court of Appeals upheld the order.[202]

Campus crime records. For many years, some college and university police departments withheld the names of students involved in crimes, claiming that releasing such information would invade students’ privacy and thereby violate the federal Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act of 1974 (FERPA or the Buckley Amendment).[203] FERPA says that educational institutions that release students’ “education records” without the permission of a student’s parent or of a student over the age of 18 may lose federal funding. However, Congress has amended the law to make clear that “records maintained by a law enforcement unit of the educational agency or institution that were created by that law enforcement unit for the purpose of law enforcement” are not education records.[204] Therefore such records may be disclosed under North Carolina’s Public Records Law. 

Prior to 2005, campus police departments on both public and private school campuses were authorized by the Office of Attorney General pursuant to Chapter 74E, the Company Police Act, which brought them within the ambit of the Public Records Law.[205] However, in 2005, campus police departments began being authorized under Chapter 74G, the Campus Police Act, which resulted in the removal (likely inadvertent) of private campus police departments from the Public Records Law. In Ochsner v. Elon University, the Court of Appeals found that the campus police department at Elon University was not subject to the Public Records Law.[206] In 2013, an evenly divided North Carolina Supreme Court left this ruling in place.[207] Following Ochsner, the General Assembly amended the Campus Police Act and began requiring private campus police departments to disclose two types of crime-related information as a condition of state certification: 1) information required to be reported to the federal government under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (the “Clery Act”); 2) information maintained by public law enforcement agencies and open to inspection under N.C.G.S. § 132-1.4(c). This provision requires disclosure of incident reports when crimes occur on private campuses, subject to the same exceptions that apply to records of public law enforcement agencies. The Public Records Law still applies more broadly to law enforcement agencies at public colleges and universities.  

FERPA also makes it clear that the law does not prohibit a college or university from disclosing the final results of any disciplinary proceeding in which a student is found to have violated a university rule or policy in connection with the commission a violent crime or a nonforcible sex offense.[208] The university may release the name of the student, the violation committed and the punishment imposed.[209] The university may release the name of any other student, such as a victim or witness, only with the written consent of that other student.[210]

The Clery Act, which became law in 1990, requires public and private colleges and universities that receive federal funds to compile, publish and distribute each September a report on serious crimes that have occurred on their campuses.[211] These reports are submitted to the Secretary of Education and made publicly available.[212] Subsequently the U.S. Department of Education adopted rules to clarify the requirements of the federal law.[213] Colleges and universities must report statistics on reports of the following crimes: murder, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, manslaughter and arson. They also must report statistics on arrests for liquor law violations, drug-related violations and weapons possession and statistics on crimes involving bodily injury that manifest evidence of prejudice based on the race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability of the victim. They also must report statistics on “domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking incidents that were reported to campus security authorities or local police agencies.”[214] These annual reports must include crimes reported to local police as well as to campus police and those that occur in university-controlled property off-campus as well as on campus. (See also Education records.)

Colleges and universities must also “make, keep, and maintain a daily log, written in a form that can be easily understood, recording all crimes reported to such police or security department.”[215] The logs are open to public inspection within two days of the report to the police unless the disclosure would “jeopardize the confidentiality of the victim,”[216] or “jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation or the safety of an individual, cause a suspect to flee or evade detection, or result in the destruction of evidence.”[217] Colleges and universities must also “make timely reports to the campus community on crimes considered to be a threat to other students and employees described in paragraph (1)(F) that are reported to campus security or local law police agencies.”[218] Victim names are confidential and withheld from the reports.[219]

Criminal histories. Like all records in the custody of clerks of court, criminal histories held by various county clerks of court are public record.[220] However, criminal history records stored in the computerized Criminal Information Network (CIN) are not open to public inspection.[221] Also, the annual checks of the criminal histories of all foster parents and individuals 18 years old or older who reside in foster homes to determine their fitness to host foster children are confidential.[222]

Investigatory and intelligence records. Records of criminal investigations conducted by law enforcement agencies or records of criminal intelligence information compiled by these agencies are not public records.[223] Criminal investigation records are defined as “all records or any information that pertains to a person or group of persons that is compiled by public law enforcement agencies for the purpose of attempting to prevent or solve violations of the law, including information derived from witnesses, laboratory tests, surveillance, investigators, confidential informants, photographs, and measurements.”[224] Criminal intelligence information is defined as “records or any information that pertains to a person or group of persons that is compiled…in an effort to anticipate, prevent, or monitor possible violations of the law.”[225] The N.C. Supreme Court has said that these exemptions are designed to encourage police to enter information in their reports freely, to avoid tipping off the subjects of investigations and to protect confidential investigative techniques.[226] However, the Public Records Law clearly says that the use of a public record in connection with a criminal investigation does not alter its status as a public record and that a law enforcement agency cannot prevent another agency from disclosing a public record.[227]

Juvenile records. Neither law enforcement records in juvenile cases[228] nor records of juveniles under the protective custody of a department of social services are public records.[229] State law does, however, mandate the public disclosure of some state agency information involving the fatality or near fatality of a juvenile under the protective custody of a social service department due to suspected abuse, neglect or maltreatment.[230] Once a person is criminally charged in such a case, a county department of social services that had been notified that the child might be in need of protection must disclose a written statement of the dates, outcomes and results of any actions taken or services rendered by the agency.

SBI records. Until 1993, State Bureau of Investigation records were kept confidential by statute. The only way for the records to become public was for the SBI to submit the records to another agency whose records are public, like what happened in News & Observer Pub. Co v. Poole.[231] That statute has since been repealed. Now the Public Records Law treats SBI records the same way it treats other law enforcement records.

Search warrants. The Public Records Law says the following are public records absent a court order sealing them: “arrest and search warrants that have been returned by law enforcement agencies, indictments, criminal summons, and nontestimonial identification orders.”[232] However, in 2009 the N.C. Court of Appeals created an exception to the rule that search warrants are public records. The court denied a request to unseal three search warrants related to the investigation of the murder of Cary resident Nancy Cooper because the search warrants had been sealed by court order and releasing them would have undermined the ongoing investigation.[233]

Sexual offender and predator registries. North Carolina’s Sex Offender and Public Protection Registration Program and its Sexually Violent Predator Registration Program require those convicted of sexual offenses or of certain other offenses against minors, such as kidnapping, to register with local law enforcement agencies, and most of that registration information is public record.[234] The following information about sexual offenders is public record: name, sex, address, physical description, picture, conviction date, offense for which registration was required, the sentence imposed as a result of the conviction and registration status.[235] Information regarding the offender’s medical records or treatment for the offender’s mental abnormality or personality disorder is not part of the public record.[236] The law also says, “The sheriff shall release any other relevant information that is necessary to protect the public concerning a specific person, but shall not release the identity of the victim of the offense that required registration….”[237]

Any person may obtain a copy of an individual sexual offender’s registration form or all or part of the county’s sexual offender registry by submitting a written request to the sheriff.[238] Certain juvenile sexual offenders may be required to register, but their registration information is not public record.[239]

Victims’ identities. The names of crime victims and complaining witnesses that appear in arrest documents, charges, indictments, applications for search warrants and similar documents are public record.[240] However, the Public Records Law also says, “A public law enforcement agency shall temporarily withhold the name or address of a complaining witness if release of the information is reasonably likely to pose a threat to the mental health, physical health, or personal safety of the complaining witness or materially compromise a continuing or future criminal investigation or criminal intelligence operation.”[241] Such information is to become public “as soon as the circumstances that justify withholding it cease to exist.”[242] Some confusion has arisen from the phrase “shall temporarily withhold.” Many law enforcement agencies have interpreted this to mean either they must withhold the names of complaining witnesses or they must let the complaining witness decide whether his or her name is made public.

In late 1993 then-Attorney General Mike Easley wrote a memorandum to the state’s city and county attorneys and police and sheriffs’ attorneys to clarify the meaning of that provision of the law.[243] First, he said that whether the name and address of a complaining witness are public information is a decision to be made by the law enforcement agency, not the complaining witness. He explained, “In a case where the alleged perpetrator has not been apprehended, the agency might conclude that the complaining witness could be in danger and initially withhold the name and address of the witness. However, the agency may also conclude that disclosing details of the crime might bring forward other witnesses, and so the time, date, and location and nature of the violation is released immediately.”[244] The attorney general further said that decisions about disclosure should be made by weighing the information requester’s evidence that there is no danger to the witness against law enforcement’s evidence that disclosure would jeopardize the right of the defendant or the state to receive a fair trial or would compromise an ongoing investigation. If a law enforcement agency makes a reasoned decision to disclose a name, the agency is not liable for harm to the individual that might result from that decision. The attorney general’s memo does not have the force of law, and law enforcement agencies continue to vary in how they interpret the law. Also, state statutes protect crime victims in the following ways:

  • Law enforcement officials may redact from 911 tapes information that reveals the identity of the caller, victim or witness.[245]
  • A victim’s request under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act to be notified when matters arise relating to an incarcerated individual is not a matter of public record.[246]
  • Medical information about the mental, physical or emotional condition of a victim, law enforcement information about a victim and any juvenile records held by the Victims Compensation Commission and its director are confidential.[247] Other records of the commission are public.
  • The Public Records Law exempts from disclosure the addresses and telephone numbers of persons enrolled in a state program to protect the confidentiality of a relocated victim of domestic violence.[248]

911 and emergency notification databases. Automatic telephone number and location identification information that comprises the name, address and telephone numbers of telephone subscribers contained in a county or municipal 911 database is not a public record if that information is required to be confidential by the agreement with the telephone company from which the information was obtained. Also, the email addresses of subscribers to a county or municipal electronic emergency notification or reverse 911 system that are stored in such a system are not public records if that information is required to be confidential by the agreement with the telephone company from which the information was obtained.[249]

Lawsuit settlements. When an agent or agency of state or local government settles a lawsuit, administrative proceeding or arbitration arising out of a claim related to the agency’s official duties, that settlement is a public record.[250] Settlement documents are defined as including, but not limited to, correspondence, settlement agreements, consent orders, checks and bank drafts.[251] Settlements of medical malpractice lawsuits against hospitals are exempt from this public records requirement.[252] The Public Records Law also prohibits state or local governments or their counsel, insurance company or other representative from entering into any settlement if the settlement provides that its terms are confidential. It further says that a court may seal such a settlement only if the presumption of openness is overcome by an overriding interest that cannot be protected by other means. The court order sealing the settlement must articulate the overriding interest and include the findings of fact. The Open Meetings Law also has a provision addressing public agency settlements. The law provides that once a public body has approved or considered a lawsuit settlement in closed session, the terms of the settlement must be entered into its minutes “as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.”[253]

Lethal Injections. The “name, address, qualifications, and other identifying information” of any person or entity involved in the creation, distribution, or administration of drugs used for lethal injections are not public records.[254] Similarly, identifying information of individuals authorized to carry out executions is strictly confidential.[255]

Library records. All library user records — including whether an individual requested or obtained a book or other material or services — are confidential.[256]

Lobbyist records. Lobbyists working at the General Assembly must file expense reports with the secretary of state, and those reports are public records.[257] The reports detail the date and amount of each expenditure, to whom it was paid and the name of the legislators who benefited from each expenditure. Expenditures that must be reported include payments for transportation, lodging, entertainment, food and direct or indirect financial contributions. Expenditures of less than $25 need not be reported. State law also requires a lobbyist’s employer to file expense reports with the secretary of state. Those reports, which must include payments to lobbyists, also are public records.[258]

Lottery Winners. When a lottery winner whose prize was more than fifty million dollars requests to remain anonymous for 90 days, their identifying information is not public record.[259]

Mailing lists. Mailing lists are used by local governments to notify subscribing individuals of emergencies, community announcements, policy changes or other purposes. Local governments are not required to provide copies of their electronic mailing lists to the public. However, the government must allow public inspection of the mailing lists, either in printed or electronic format.[260]

Medical Database Commission records. Databases compiled by the N.C. Medical Database Commission are public records.[261] However, the individual patient information supplied to the commission by hospitals and other medical service providers is not part of the public record.[262]

Medical records. Individual patient records clearly are not public records — not even when they are in the hands of a government agency — but may be released with patient consent. This denial of access is dictated by federal law,[263] as well as the state law described here. Communications between a physician and a patient are strictly confidential.[264]

Agency records. Dozens of state statutes protect the confidentiality of individual patient records that are in the possession of government agencies, hospitals, other health facilities, doctors and pharmacies. For example, a state statute says that all patient records in the possession of the Department of Health and Human Services or a local health department[265] are confidential. Other statutes protect the confidentiality of individual patient records held by the Center for Health Statistics;[266] the N.C. Department of Insurance;[267] health maintenance organizations;[268] local agencies that treat mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse;[269] and public health authorities.[270] In addition to health information, the confidential records generally include charges, accounts, credit histories and other personal financial records compiled in connection with the admission, treatment and discharge of individual patients.[271]

Communicable disease records. Health care providers — physicians, hospital administrators and laboratory directors — are required by state law to report cases of some communicable diseases to the state or local government.[272] For example, cases of HIV,[273] COVID-19,[274] and tuberculosis, must be reported to the local health director within a certain time period.[275] Generally, that information is confidential except when the release of such information is “necessary to protect the public health,”[276] or would “prevent or lessen a serious or imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public.”[277] Statistical information based on those reports is public record.[278] A similar statute prohibits the state from disseminating individual patient information it obtains in the process of collecting information about cancer.[279]

Government employee records. Health care records of teachers and other state employees in the possession of the State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees or its Claims Processor under the Plan or the Predecessor Plan are not public records.[280] This applies to all information concerning individuals, including the fact of coverage or noncoverage, whether a claim has been filed, medical information, whether a claim has been paid and any other information or materials concerning a plan participant.[281]

Health maintenance organization records. Information pertaining to the diagnosis, treatment or health of any enrollee in or applicant to an HMO must be kept confidential except when disclosure is required by law or is authorized by the enrollee or applicant.[282]

Hospice patient records. Although the Department of Human Resources may review the treatment of hospice patients, it may not disclose confidential information about patients or the name of anyone who has furnished information concerning a hospice without that person’s consent.[283]

Peer review committee records. Personal privacy concerns also arise in connection with the records of medical peer review committees that hear complaints against medical professionals and medical facilities. These records generally are not open to the public — an exception to the Public Records Law designed to improve the quality of healthcare by encouraging candor in peer review committee proceedings. State statutes provide that the records of hospital,[284] medical society[285] and dental peer review committees[286] are confidential. The statute governing dental peer review committees does, however, make public all records concerning the investigation and consideration of Medicare and Medicaid charges or payments.

Prescription records. All prescription orders on file at pharmacies are confidential records.[287]

(See also Health care facility and service inspections records, Health maintenance organization records, Competitive health care information, Medical Database Commission records and the discussion of hospital peer review evaluations and the case of Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp. in the chapter on access to the judicial process.)

Military and veterans records (misc.). All National Guard records in the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety are confidential.[288] N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs records also are confidential.[289] Documents “related to the federal government's process to determine closure or realignment of military installations” are confidential until the federal government makes a final decision about closure or realignment.[290]

Minutes of government meetings. The Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to keep accurate minutes of both public and closed meetings and to make those minutes available to the public.[291] For closed sessions, the public body must keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired. Public bodies may satisfy the minutes requirement by taking minutes by audio or video recording. All minutes and general accounts of closed sessions are public records. However, closed session minutes may be withheld so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.”[292] Once the government’s justification for closure passes, the minutes must be produced. A 2005 Attorney General Opinion reiterated this, stating that “while in a closed session, the public body must still maintain full and accurate minutes of the session.”[293]

The Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that whether disclosure of the minutes of a closed meeting would frustrate the purpose of that meeting should be determined by the trial court after reviewing the minutes in camera (out of public view). The court should consider “time and content factors” and “ensure that the exception to the disclosure requirement should extend no further than necessary….”[294] A 2002 N.C. Court of Appeals provided guidance on information that could be disclosed from the minutes of a closed session: “the portions of the minutes which revealed such [non-confidential] information should have been disclosed to plaintiff upon request.”[295] This included the location of property that the City Council intended to purchase, the purpose of acquisition, and identity of the current owner.

In a 1995 Superior Court case, a judge ruled that unapproved, draft minutes are public records. In that case, in which the Winston-Salem Journal sought access to minutes of a Surry County Board of Commissioners meeting that had been closed to discuss real property acquisition, the judge ruled that any notes taken by anyone in attendance at the closed meeting were public records.[296]

Motor vehicle, accident and traffic violation records. As mandated by the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA),[297] North Carolina has enacted a law that prohibits the release of personal information regarding driver’s licenses and motor vehicle registrations without the written consent of the individual.[298] Social Security numbers provided to the state to obtain driver’s licenses are confidential.[299] 

The DPPA restricts the ability of state motor vehicle departments (DMVs) to sell or disclose personal, identifying information without an individual’s consent. There are exceptions for law enforcement, pollution control and other limited purposes – but not for journalistic newsgathering. The law was designed to prevent tragedies like the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker.[300] The stalker hired a private investigator who obtained Schaeffer’s home address from DMV records. One result of the law has been to deny journalists access to many records that traditionally had been public. Previously, all driver license records for the preceding five years were public under North Carolina law.

In 2011, North Carolina amended the laws concerning personal information in motor vehicle records to allow for the sale of “partial crash report data,” “partial drivers license data,” and “partial vehicle registration application data” in bulk.[301] “[P]ersons, private companies, [and] other entities” may purchase this information for 3 cents per record, so long as they do not use it for official means.[302] These entities must agree in writing to comply with the DPPA before they can receive the data.[303]

Neither federal nor state law prohibits the release of information on vehicular accidents, driving violations and driver’s status. These are public records routinely available from the Division of Motor Vehicles.[304]  Also, it is important to note that current North Carolina law, as revised in response to the DPPA, only prohibits disclosures by the DMV, not local police departments and sheriff’s departments.[305]

Other driving records that the state attorney general has said are not public[306] include:

(1) The form maintained by an arresting officer that is completed when a person refuses to take a blood alcohol test.

(2) The form maintained by an arresting officer that lists the rights of a person requested to take a chemical test to determine the alcohol content of blood.

(3) The alcohol influence report maintained by the arresting officer and the copy maintained at state patrol headquarters.

(4) The departmental copy of the uniform traffic ticket and complaint while it is maintained at the patrol district headquarters before it is transmitted to the Traffic Record Section of the Division of Motor Vehicles.

(5) The copy of the uniform traffic ticket and complaint that is maintained by the officer issuing the complaint and includes his or her notes and other evidence prior to the trial of the offense.

(6) The chemical test operator’s log while in possession of the chemical test operator.

(7) The breathalyzer operational checklist that is completed and maintained by the breathalyzer operator.

Warning tickets issued by law enforcement are not public records.[307]

Railroad, bus and other public utility accident reports are public records and are available from the N.C. Utilities Commission.[308]

Operating records and contracts. Government records and papers, such as budgets, bank statements, tax levies, utility accounts and contracts, are public records. Over the years, a significant number of court decisions and state attorney general opinions have reiterated and clarified that point. For example, in 1981 the Court of Appeals ruled that letters from a consulting engineer hired by the city to inspect construction work on additions and modifications to its water treatment plant to the city manager are public records.[309]

In 1982 the state attorney general advised that a public hospital’s contracts with independent contractors for pathology services, anesthesia services and the like were public records. He said state law dictated that the contractors had to be hired in an open meeting and therefore the terms of the contracts must be revealed.[310]

In 1993 the Court of Appeals held that records created and maintained solely by an independent contractor with a governmental agency are not subject to the provisions of the Public Records Law until they are transferred to the public agency.[311]

Furthermore, various state statutes dictate that agency records and contracts are public records – and create a few exceptions to that general rule.  One statute says diaries kept in connection with construction or repair contracts are public records once the final bills have been paid.[312] However, analyses generated by the Department of Transportation’s Bid Analysis and Management System, including working papers, bid analyses and other documents, are confidential.[313] Bids and documents submitted to the Department of Transportation at their request become public record once the Department makes a decision to award or not award the contract.[314] Records related to discussions of a proposed or existing contract for the construction, ownership or operation of electrical power facilities or the purchase or sale of electric power also are not public unless a government entity is a party to the contract.[315] (See also Bids for government contracts, Minutes of government meetings and Personnel records.)

            Park and recreation records. The Public Records Law prohibits public access to identifying information about minors participating in local-government-sponsored park or recreation programs and programs funded by the North Carolina Partnership for Children.[316] The following information is confidential: name, address, age, date of birth, telephone number, the name or address of a minor’s parent or legal guardian and any other identifying information on an application to participate in a government-sponsored park or recreation program.  The county, municipality and zip code of each participating minor are matters of public record, however.[317]

Personnel records. There are 10 separate state personnel statutes, including those dealing with the personnel files of municipal,[318] county[319] and state employees,[320] employees of local school boards[321] and employees of public hospitals.[322] In 2010 those statutes were amended to grant public access to all records of government employee compensation – in whatever form the compensation is awarded.  The amendments also give citizens access to information about if and when a public employee is fired, suspended, demoted or transferred and to public employee termination letters. All the statutes make it clear that the following information about those employees is a matter of public record:

(1) Name.

(2) Age.

(3) Date of original employment or appointment to the state service.

(4) “[T]he terms of any contract by which the employee is employed whether written or oral, past and current, to the extent that the [government employer] has the written contract or a record of the oral contract in its possession.”

(5) Current position.

(6) Title.

(7) Current salary. The personnel statutes now say that “salary” includes pay, benefits, incentives, bonuses, and deferred and all other forms of compensation paid by the employing entity.[323]

(8) Date and amount of each increase or decrease in salary.

(9) Date and type of most recent promotion, demotion, transfer, suspension, separation or other change in position classification.

(10) Date and general description of the reasons for each promotion.

(11) Date and type of each dismissal, suspension, or demotion for disciplinary reasons.  If the disciplinary action was a dismissal, a copy of the written notice of the final decision of the government employer setting forth the specific acts or omissions that are the basis of the dismissal.  (Note that while you have a right of access to the written notice of the termination of a public employee, the law does stipulate what must be included in that written notice and some agencies have challenged that the statute even creates a mandate that such a notice be given.)

(12) The office or station to which the employee is currently assigned.[324]

Other information properly included in an employee’s personnel file is confidential by law. This includes information “gathered by the government” relating to the individual’s application, selection or non-selection, promotions, demotions, transfers, leave, salary, suspension, performance, disciplinary actions and termination of employment, wherever those documents are located and in whatever form.[325] 

Merely placing information in a personnel file does not automatically exempt it from public disclosure; a document’s classification as a personnel record will depend on its substance.[326] To be confidential, the information must have been “gathered” by the employing agency. The North Carolina Court of Appeals clarified what “gathered” means in Knight Pub. Co. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hosp. Authority, defining it as “amassed, accumulated, and collected into one place by the employer.”[327] This includes applications for employment that are sent to the employing agency.[328]

In 1992 the N.C. Supreme Court reaffirmed that only employee information gathered by the employing agency is exempt from public disclosure under the state personnel records privacy statute.[329] The court ruled that information about state employees gathered by the SBI and a special government commission appointed to investigate improprieties relating to the men’s basketball team at NCSU was not exempt from the Public Records Law because it had not been gathered by the agency for which the employee worked. Also, the statutes governing municipal and county employees explicitly state that an employee may sign a written release authorizing the disclosure of his personnel file to anyone.

Criminal background-check records.  State statutes deny public or media access to the criminal records checks of public school personnel conducted by the state Department of Justice or the State Board of Education.[330] 

Disciplinary records. As described above in this section, the various state personnel statutes make an employee’s “demotion, transfer, suspension, separation or other change in position classification” a matter of public record,[331] but the reasons for disciplinary actions are public only to the extent that the reasons are explained in an employee’s written termination notice.

Furthermore, each personnel statute says that an appropriate supervisor of the employee (a county manager, department head or school superintendent, for example) may disclose records related to personnel actions and the reasons for the action and allow the person’s personnel file to be inspected when the supervisor determines that the release of such information “is essential to maintaining the integrity of such department or to maintaining the level or quality of services provided by such department.”[332] Prior to the releasing the information, the employer must prepare a memorandum explaining why the release of information was necessary. The memorandum is a public record.[333]

Such authority is seldom exercised. However, in 2004 Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake of the N.C. Supreme Court used such a statutory provision to release a memorandum disclosing his reasons for requesting the resignation of John Kennedy as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. He released a memo describing the circumstances surrounding Kennedy’s resignation and a memo explaining why it was important to make that information public.[334]

Former employees’ records. The personnel files of former employees who have not been employed by the state for 10 or more years may be opened for public inspection, except for documents relating to demotions and to disciplinary actions that resulted in the employee’s dismissal.[335]

Job applications. The personnel statutes that apply to state, municipal, county and other government workers exempt job applications from disclosure. Twice in the early 1990s, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that applications for government jobs are not public records.[336] In one case, the court said the names of the applicants also were not public record.[337] In both cases the court reasoned that the information was part of the applicant’s confidential personnel file.

Retirement records. Information provided by public employees to city, county and state retirement systems is confidential and not a matter of public record. This includes an employee’s Social Security number and current name and address.[338]

Salary information. State statutes clearly state that a public employee’s “current salary” and the “date and amount of the most recent increase or decrease in salary” are public records.[339] As noted above in this section, the state’s personnel statutes say that “salary” includes pay, benefits, incentives, bonuses, and deferred and all other forms of compensation paid by the employing entity.[340]

Telephone numbers. In 2011 a N.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the appearance of UNC-CH employees’ telephone numbers on the telephone records of another employee’s University-issued telephone did not constitute a personnel record exempt from public disclosure.[341]

Precious metal dealer records. Local law enforcement agency records that contain copies of sales record book entries from precious metal dealers are not public records.[342]

Preliminary reports and work papers. Drafts, preliminary reports and work papers are public records, and public agencies in North Carolina do not have the right to embargo a document until its release is more beneficial to or convenient for the agency. The one major exception is for the work papers of the state auditor.[343]

In 1987 the Court of Appeals granted the North Carolina Press Association access to written reports and recommendations concerning intercollegiate athletics prepared by the chancellors of the various UNC campuses and delivered to then-UNC President C.D. Spangler, Jr. The court rejected the University’s argument that the campus chancellors’ reports to the president were exempt from disclosure as preliminary studies and internal and interagency memoranda (i.e. working papers).[344] In News & Observer v. Poole, a case discussed previously regarding the scope of the personnel exemption, the N.C. Supreme Court also explicitly ruled that there is no “preliminary draft” exception to the Public Records Law. The court held that draft reports prepared by individual members of the Poole Commission, set up to investigate the men’s basketball program at NCSU, were public records.[345]

In 1994, a Superior Court judge in Durham County declared that a public school student assignment plan report that was incomplete and had not yet been given to the school board by the school administrator was a public record that could be inspected by the public.[346]

In 1995, a Surry County Superior Court judge held that draft minutes of a public meeting were public records, even though they had not been transcribed or approved. Furthermore, the court ordered disclosure of the public officials’ personal notes from the meeting.[347]

Prison, parole and probation records. Several North Carolina statutes stipulate that internal prison records — those related to matters such as prisoner behavior, discipline and consideration for work release — are not public records.[348] The Court of Appeals has interpreted that to mean such information is available only to law enforcement agencies, courts, and other officials and agencies requiring information about crimes and criminals.[349] 

Likewise, records compiled in connection with prison grievance proceedings are confidential.  Prisoner grievances are handled by the Grievance Resolution Board, and according to a state statute, “[a]ll reports, investigations, and like supporting documents prepared by the Department [of Correction] for purposes of responding to the prisoner’s request for an administrative remedy shall be deemed to be confidential.”[350] Such records are available to the complaining prisoner, however. All records obtained by a probation officer in connection with his or her official duties also are confidential.[351]

Prison records dealing with matters like the length of a prisoner’s sentence, the beginning and ending date of the sentence and any transfers are public records. For example, a state statute says 30 days before a prison inmate is transferred to a prison in another state the secretary of correction must notify those involved in the case, including the victim and any other person who has requested notification, and post a notice of the transfer at the local courthouse.[352] All subsequent written comments regarding the planned transfer are public records unless the secretary of correction determines that making the information public would jeopardize the safety of persons or property.[353]

The Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) of 2013 requires all states to report the deaths of any person “who is detained, under arrest, or is in the process of being arrested, is en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, State prison, State-run boot camp prison, boot camp prison that is contracted out by the State, any State or local contract facility, or other local or State correctional facility (including any juvenile facility).”[354] States must report at minimum:

(1) the name, gender, race, ethnicity, and age of the deceased;

(2) the date, time, and location of death;

(3) the law enforcement agency that detained, arrested, or was in the process of arresting the deceased; and

(4) a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death.[355]

In North Carolina, the agency who had “custody of the decedent at the time of death” is responsible for  reporting the death to the Governor's Crime Commission.[356] The deaths are required to be reported on a quarterly basis.[357] However, the Department of Justice does not release the individual reports of deaths in police custody to the public, citing federal law that prohibits the disclosure of “any research or statistical information that is identifiable to any private person.”[358] More information about how North Carolina is complying with DCRA can be found at DPS’ website here:

Professional licensing board records. Many types of professionals must be licensed in order to work in North Carolina. The extent to which the records of various licensing agencies are public differs from agency to agency.

Attorneys. The State Bar licenses attorneys to practice law in North Carolina. The records of its Board of Law Examiners, the body that actually examines and licenses attorneys, are not public. The relevant statute says, “[r]ecords, papers, and other documents containing information collected and compiled by the Board or its members or employees as a result of investigations, inquiries, or interviews conducted in connection with examinations or licensing matters, are not public records….”[359] Similarly, State Bar records related to the application of a foreign attorney seeking permission to work in North Carolina are not public.[360]

Certified public accountants. A North Carolina statute forbids disclosure of many of the records of the Board of Certified Public Accountant Examiners. For example, records of complaints and examinations are not public records.[361] However, any notice of a hearing or statement of charges against a certified accountant or applicant is public record, “even though it may contain information collected and compiled as a result of a complaint, investigation, inquiry, or interview conducted by the Board.”[362] The law further states, “[i]f any record, paper, or other document containing information collected and compiled by the Board is admitted into evidence in a hearing held by the Board, it shall then be a public record….”[363]

Dentists. The State Board of Dental Examiners’ investigative records related to licensing or disciplinary actions are not public records.[364] However, any notice or statement of charges against any licensee or any notice to any licensee of a hearing is a public record, and if any record containing information collected by the board is admitted into evidence in any board hearing, it becomes a public record.[365]

Geologists. A state statute says the records of the proceedings of the Geologists Licensing Board and a register of all applications for licensing — including the full identification of the applicant, the applicant’s qualifications and the board’s action on the application — are public records.[366] Individual test scores, applications and related materials including letters of reference are not public records.[367]

Pastoral counselors. A state statute controls public access to the records of the N.C. State Board of Examiners of Fee-Based Practicing Pastoral Counselors.[368] The law says the board of examiners shall, in its records and proceedings, “endeavor to withhold from public disclosure the identity of any counselees or clients who have not consented to the public disclosure of treatment by the certified fee-based pastoral counselor or certified fee-based pastoral counseling associate.”[369] The statute authorizes the board to close its hearings to the public to receive evidence concerning the delivery of pastoral counseling services to a person who has not consented to public disclosure of that service, and “[a]ll records, papers, and documents containing information collected and compiled by or on behalf of the Board as a result of investigations, inquiries, or interviews conducted in connection with certification or disciplinary matters are not public records….”[370] However, statements of charges, notices of hearings, decisions of the board, and documents collected and compiled by the board and entered into evidence at a hearing are public records except for the identities of clients, which may be deleted.

Physicians. State Board of Medical Examiners records containing information gathered by the board or its staff in connection with a physician licensing or disciplinary matter are not public records until they are admitted into evidence at a board hearing.[371] Also, the board can withhold from the public the identity of any patient who has not consented to disclosure of his or her treatment by an accused physician.[372] However, statements of charges against a licensed physician and notices of hearings are public records.[373] (See also Medical records/Peer review committee records.)

Psychologists. The N.C. Psychology Board licenses psychologists. Board records containing information gathered by the board or its staff in connection with a licensing or disciplinary matter are not public records until they are admitted into evidence at a board hearing. Also, the board can withhold from the public the identity of any patient who has not consented to disclosure of his or her treatment.[374] However, statements of charges against a licensed psychologist and notices of hearings are public records.[375]

Refrigeration contractors. A state statute denies public and media access to the licensing and disciplinary records of the State Board of Refrigeration Examiners.[376]

Speech and language pathologists and audiologists. License applications filed with the state by speech and language pathologists and audiologists are public records, according to an opinion of the state attorney general.[377]

(See also Design professionals’ seals.)

Public assistance records. State law prohibits the government from revealing the names or other information about people applying for or receiving social services or public assistance.[378] However, the same law also requires each county auditor to make available for public inspection a monthly register of the names of all recipients of Work First Family Assistance and State-County Special Assistance for Adults, their addresses and the amount of money they received.[379] The law further states that the information may not be used “for any commercial or political purpose.”[380]

Proprietary Computer Code. Proprietary computer code written “by and for use by an agency” in North Carolina is not a public record.[381]

Public enterprise billing information. The Public Records Law itself exempts “public enterprise billing information” from disclosure.[382] Public enterprise billing information comprises records compiled and maintained with respect to individual customers by a municipality or other public entity that provides utility services such as electricity, water and gas services; public transportation except for airports; parking facilities; and cable television.[383] Disclosure is allowed, however, when “necessary to assist the city, county, State, or public enterprise to maintain the integrity and quality of services it provides….”[384] (See also Public utility records.)

Public utility records. The business records of utility companies such as power companies, natural gas distribution companies and telephone companies are generally not open to public inspection. Most public utilities are organized as private corporations; as such, their books and records enjoy the same degree of confidentiality as those of other private businesses. In 1999 the Court of Appeals clearly ruled that a public utility — in this case the telephone company MCI — was a private person under the law, not a public agency.[385] The court explained that a telephone company’s private status was not invalidated by the Utilities Commission’s authority to regulate the company. The Utilities Commission’s oversight of the company was material but not comprehensive, the court said. It added that the Public Records Law makes no distinction between regulated and unregulated industries, so generally it applies to neither.

The Public Records Law does apply to the Utilities Commission, however. For example, public utilities operating in this state must file annual reports concerning their operations,[386] which are public records. State law also gives the Utilities Commission and its staff authority to inspect the books and records of public utilities, and information gleaned from such inspections frequently is introduced into evidence at commission hearings, whereupon it becomes a matter of public record. State law further provides that the Utilities Commission must maintain a record of its official acts, rulings, orders, decisions and transactions, all of which are public by law.[387]

However, in the MCI case discussed above, the court ruled that some telephone company reports filed with the Utilities Commission were exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law because they were trade secrets that were the property of a private person. (See also Trade secrets.) Also, a state statute prohibits Utilities Commission employees from revealing information obtained during the course of any examination or inspection made as part of their official duties.[388]

Railroad records. Records relating to the business activities of the state-owned railroad are public records with these two exceptions set out in a state statute: “[I]nformation related to a proposed specific business transaction where inspection, examination, or copying of the records would frustrate the purpose for which the records were created” and “information that is subject to confidentiality obligations of a railroad company.”[389] However, a divided N.C. Supreme Court decided in 2021 that the North Carolina Railroad Company is not a “public agency or subdivision” of the state, and instead is a private corporation with a “separate corporate identity.”[390] The court found that the railroad’s activities were not sufficiently intertwined with government activity to warrant classification as a public agency.

Real estate appraisals, negotiations. Documents related to the acquisition or disposition of public property are public records with one exception. The Open Meetings Law allows a public body to meet in closed session to discuss “the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease.”[391] When that happens, the minutes and other records related to that discussion are public records, but they may be withheld from the public “so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of the closed session.”[392] Nothing in state law allows a similar withholding of records related to the disposition of public property.

Retirement system records. A state statute stipulates that records of the proceedings of the board of trustees of the Retirement System for Teachers and State Employees are public records.[393] Furthermore, the board must prepare a public annual report on the system’s fiscal transactions for the previous year, the amount of accumulated cash and securities and the last balance sheet showing the financial status of the system. The requirements are the same for county retirement systems.[394]

School Risk Management Plans. School Risk Management Plans created by local school boards, charter schools, regional schools, and laboratory schools are not public records.[395] Schematic diagrams and emergency response information provided by these institutions to the Department of Public Safety, Division of Emergency Management are not public records.[396]

Software. The state attorney general’s office has expressed the opinion that computer software developed by the state is not a record and therefore is not a public record. The attorney general’s office said the N.C. Public Records law distinguishes between software and the records it generates.[397]

Tax records. The Public Records Law says state and local tax information, including local tax records that contain information about a taxpayer’s income or receipts, may not be disclosed.[398] Additionally, state employees may not disclose the following information about a taxpayer:

(1) Information contained on a tax return, a tax report, or an application for a license for which a tax is imposed.

(2) Information obtained through an audit of a taxpayer or by correspondence with a taxpayer.

(3) Information on whether a taxpayer has filed a tax return or a tax report.

(4) A list or other compilation of the names, addresses, Social Security numbers, or similar information concerning taxpayers.[399]

That statute says statistical reports that do not reveal tax information about specific individuals are public records.[400]

Property tax records revealing inventories, statements of assets and liabilities and other information secured by the county assessor to appraise property are not public records.[401] However, the assessed and appraised values of property are available for public inspection. Statistical information that does not identify individual taxpayers also may be released. City[402] and county[403] room occupancy tax returns filed monthly with local governments are not public records.

The state’s Setoff Debt Collection Act authorizes the secretary of revenue to setoff against any tax refund any debt owed to the state by the refund recipient. Information exchanged by the Revenue Department, the claimant agency and the taxpayer related to the setoff is not public record.[404]

Toxic substances. Hazardous substance lists filed with fire chiefs by businesses that store hazardous waste are confidential and can only be released to those government agencies planning emergency response activities.[405] The emergency response plans filed with local fire chiefs also are confidential.[406] However, in 1985 the General Assembly passed the Hazardous Chemicals Right to Know Act, which grants citizens the right to obtain some information about the hazardous chemicals being used by North Carolina businesses.[407] The act says that you can write to a business and request a list of chemicals used or stored at a facility. You must give your name, address and reason for the request. Then the business has 10 business days within which to provide a list of at least all the chemicals that are on the state’s Hazardous Substance List and information about those chemicals. If your request is denied, you can appeal that denial to the commissioner of labor.[408]

The N.C. Radiation Protection Act directs the Health and Human Services to collect information about sources of radiation in the state and to register those who possess them.  The law says the department may refuse to make public information relating to sources of radiation within this state when the department determines that “the disclosure of such information will contravene the stated policy and purposes of this [law] and such disclosure would be against the health, welfare and safety of the public.”[409]

Trade secrets. Trade secrets are defined in state law as business or technical information “including but not limited to a formula, pattern, program, device, compilation of information, method, technique, or process” that derives its commercial value from not being generally known or ascertainable and that is the subject of efforts to maintain its secrecy.[410] The state’s Public Records Law provides that a public agency cannot disclose information that is (1) a trade secret that is (2) the property of a private person and (3) that is disclosed to the public agency “in connection with the owner’s performance of a public contract or in connection with a bid, application, proposal, industrial development project” or in compliance with the law and (4) is “designated … as ‘confidential’ or as a ‘trade secret’ at the time of its initial disclosure to the public agency.”[411] All four criteria must be met for a document to be withheld lawfully.

In 1997 the Court of Appeals elaborated on the definition of trade secrets in a case in which the Wilmington Morning Star sought access to a price list that was part of a contract between a hospital and a managed healthcare organization (HMO).[412] The price list specified the costs and reimbursement rates at which certain hospital services would be provided to participating HMO customers. To determine whether the price list was a trade secret, the court considered the following factors in finding that the price list was a public record:

(1) The extent to which information is known outside the business.

(2) The extent to which it is known to employees and others involved in the business.

(3) The extent of measures taken to guard secrecy of the information.

(4) The value of information to business and its competitors.

(5) The amount of effort or money expended in developing the information.

(6) The ease or difficulty with which the information could properly be acquired or duplicated by others.

The court reasoned that although the price list was a trade secret, it was not the property of a private person as required by law for it to be exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Law. The HMO was a private person as defined by state statute,[413] but it shared ownership of the price list with the hospital, which was clearly a public agency. The year following the Wilmington Morning Star case, the General Assembly passed a law that provided “information relating to competitive health care activities by or on behalf of [public] hospitals shall be confidential and not a public record….”[414] The law made clear that the contracts “entered into by or on behalf of a public hospital … shall be a public record unless otherwise exempted by law.”[415] (See also Competitive health care information.)

In 1999 the Court of Appeals applied the same definitions and considered the same factors and concluded that telephone company reports filed with the state Utilities Commission that revealed numbers of customers served, plans for expansion and other information were not public records.[416] The court reasoned that the reports contained trade secrets and were the property of private persons — the telephone companies. The court said that although the telephone companies were classified as public utilities under state law and were regulated by the Utilities Commission, that governmental control did not overshadow the independent authority of the businesses.

Also, other state statutes prohibit state and local governments from disclosing a variety of specific trade secrets. Frequently these statutes apply to situations in which the government requires a business to submit information about its operations in order to obtain a license or permit. For example, one statute says that the formula for antifreeze submitted to the commissioner of agriculture by a company or individual seeking a permit to sell antifreeze is confidential information.[417] It can only be released to physicians to prepare an antidote in an emergency. Also, some information provided to the state Board of Agriculture by commercial livestock feed manufacturers or sellers complying with the N.C. Commercial Feed Law is confidential. The law says that “any method, records, formulations, or processes which as a trade secret is entitled to protection” is confidential.[418] State statutes also make confidential government-held trade secrets about uranium exploration,[419] the sources of precious metals purchased by licensed dealers of such materials,[420] elevators,[421] and amusement devices.[422] State laws also protect some trade secrets revealed to the government in the course of government inspections,[423] including Occupational Safety and Health Administration Inspections,[424] or in the course of bidding for a state contract.[425]

University of North Carolina liability insurance records. Records pertaining to the University’s liability insurance program are not public records.[426]

Uranium exploration records. If a person engaged in uranium exploration demonstrates to the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development that logs, surveys plats, and reports filed with the department “are of a proprietary nature relating to his competitive rights,” that information will not be a public record for four years after the department receives the information.[427] Upon written request of any such person and a showing of a continued proprietary interest affecting competitive rights, the department shall hold the material confidential for additional two-year periods.[428]

Vital statistics. Copies of birth,[429] death[430] and marriage[431] certificates maintained by county registers of deeds are public records available for public inspection and copying, but some information in those records can be redacted if the records are posted online. A register of deeds (or clerk of court) may remove a person’s Social Security or driver’s license number from any official record placed on a publicly available website created or used by a register of deeds or clerk of court.[432] A related provision in the law allows an individual to request that a register of deeds or clerk of court remove the individual’s personal information from public records posted online by those government officials. An individual can request removal of his or her Social Security number, employer taxpayer identification, driver’s license, state identification, passport, checking account, savings account, credit card, or debit card number, or personal identification (PIN) code or passwords contained in that official record.[433] Certified copies of birth, death and marriage records are available only to the categories of persons listed in the relevant state statute.[434]

Original birth certificates of adopted children are sealed,[435] health and medical information contained on birth certificates is confidential except when it is to be used for “research purposes,”[436] and birth certificates for persons in the federal witness protection program are not available to the public.[437]

The state registrar maintains a registry of each divorce and annulment granted in North Carolina, and that registry is a public record.         

A schedule of fees for copies of vital records and searches of vital records is set out in a state statute.[438]

[1] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465, 412 S.E.2d 7 (1992).

[2] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 48-9-102(a).

[3] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 48-3-309(f).

[4] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131D-2.14(4).

[5] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131D-27.

[6] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-24.1.

[7] Id.

[8] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-284.34(a).

[9] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-284.44(f).

[10] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-677.

[11] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-1031.

[12] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-794(d).

[13] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-24.1.

[14] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-111.17.

[15] S.E.T.A. v. Huffines, 101 N.C. App. 292, 399 S.E.2d 340 (1991).

[16] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-579.11.

[17] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 70-18.

[18] See Review of UNC Associated Entities,

[19] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(a).

[20] Id.

[21] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465, 412 S.E.2d 7 (1992).

[22] Womack Newspapers, Inc. v. Town of Kitty Hawk, 181 N.C. App. 1, 639 S.E.2d 96 (2007).

[23] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.9(b).

[24] Rules Civ. Proc., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 26(b)(3).

[25] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.9(h)(1).

[26] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.9(b).

[27] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.9(c).

[28] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.9(e).

[29] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 147-748.

[30] Id. See also N.C. Gen. Stat. § 147-64.6(d).

[31] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-216.51(d).

[32] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.8.

[33] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-389.1(a).

[34] The circumstances in which these officials may or must order an autopsy performed are spelled out in Chapter 130A of the General Statutes.

[35] See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-383.

[36] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-389(d).

[37] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-389.1(d).

[38] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 152-7.

[39] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-71-115

[40] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-71-125.

[41] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 53C-2-7.

[42] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 54C-60.

[43] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 54-109.105.

[44] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 54-109.105(c).

[45] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 54B-63(a).

[46] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 54B-63(c).

[47] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 54B-63.1(b).

[48] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-52.

[49] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Easley, 182 N.C. App. 14, 641 S.E.2d 698, rev. dismissed, rev. denied, 361 N.C. 429, 648 S.E.2d 508 (2007).

[50] N.C. Const., Art. III, §5(6).

[51] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115D-78.

[52] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115D-78(b).

[53] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-45.11.

[54] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-97.3(a).

[55] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 130A-45.11, 131E-97.3(a).

[56] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-97.3(b).

[57] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-99.

[58] Carter-Hubbard Publ’g Co. v. WRMC Hosp. Operating Corp., 178 N.C. App. 621, 633 S.E.2d 682 (2006), aff’d, 361 N.C. 233, 641 S.E.2d 301 (2007).

[59] Id. at 686.

[60] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(e).

[61] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-113.3(e).

[62] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-426.39B.

[63] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-426.39B.

[64] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 55-1-33, 55A-1-33, 57D-1-33.

[65] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.2(5).

[66] Id.

[67] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-266.12.

[68] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6(d).

[69] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-9(b).

[70] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-431.01(h).

[71] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-6(d).

[72] Id.

[73] Tyler Dukes, “NC nearly landed an Apple campus in 2018. Details of the incentive offer remain secret,” News & Observer (Dec. 16, 2020, 9:26AM) (

[74] Id.

[75] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.11(a).

[76] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-3.

[77] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-402(a), (e).

[78] 20 U.S.C. § 1232g.

[79] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Baddour, No. 10 CVS 1941 (N.C. Super. Ct. May 12, 2011).

[80] Id. at 3 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(a)(4)(A)).

[81] Id. (quoting Owasso Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 1-011 v. Falvo, 534 U.S. 426, 433 (2002)).

[82] Id. at 3-4.

[83] Id. at 5.

[84] DTH Media Corp. v. Folt, 374 N.C. 292, 309-10 (2020).

[85] Id. at 294.

[86] Id.

[87] Id. at 305.

[88] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(f).

[89] Id.

[90] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-562.2(e).

[91] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-174.139(a).

[92] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-174.13(b) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1232g).

[93] Public Records; State University at Raleigh; Textbook Lists; Right of Inspection, 41 Op. N.C. Att’y Gen. 199 (1971).

[94] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-12(18)(f).

[95] DTH Publ’g Co. v. Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 128 N.C. App. 534, 496 S.E.2d 8, rev. denied, 348 N.C. 496, 510 S.E.2d 381 (1998).

[96] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-228(c).

[97] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-228(b).

[98] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-232(d).

[99] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163-278.9, 163-278.22(4).

[100] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-82.10(c).

[101] Id.

[102] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-82.13(c).

[103] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 132-1.2(4), 163-82.10(a2).

[104] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-110.14.

[105] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(a).

[106] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.6.

[107] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 96-4(x).

[108] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 96-32(a).

[109] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 96-4(x)(2).

[110] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-345.14(f).

[111] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 116B-72(d).

[112] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 116B-62(f).

[113] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 138A-12(p).

[114] Id.

[115] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 138A-13(i).

[116] Id.

[117] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.23(a).

[118] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.23(c).

[119] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-79-45(c).

[120] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-79-40(d).

[121] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-100.

[122] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 113-170.3(c).

[123] Id.

[124] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.73(1).

[125] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-210.73(2).

[126] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-130(a).

[127] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-130(b).

[128] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-130(c).

[129] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-131(a).

[130] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-131(b).

[131] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-131.1.

[132] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-132.

[133] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-133.

[134] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-103.1(l).

[135] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-103.1(l).

[136] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120-103.1(a1).

[137] Public Access to Legislator’s Redistricting Communications; Custodians of Records, Op. N.C. Att’y Gen. No. 529 (2002).

[138] Public Records from State Lawmaker, ACLU of NC, (last visited Sept. 9, 2021).

[139] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-10.

[140] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Easley, 182 N.C. App. 14, 641 S.E.2d 698, rev. dismissed, rev. denied, 361 N.C. 429, 648 S.E.2d 508 (2007).

[141] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-405(a).

[142] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-405(b).

[143] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 122C-25(b).

[144] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 131E-80(d)-(e).

[145] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-105(b).

[146] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-141(b).

[147] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-150(b).

[148] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-170(b).

[149] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-222.

[150] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-124(c).

[151] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.7.

[152] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E.

[153] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-13(a).

[154] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Wake Cnty. Hosp. Sys., 55 N.C. App. 1, 284 S.E.2d 542 (1981), rev. denied, 305 N.C. 302, 291 S.E.2d 151, appeal dismissed and cert. denied, 459 U.S. 803, 103 S. Ct. 26 (1982).

[155] 55 N.C. App. at 8, 284 S.E.2d at 547 (quoting Washington Research Project, Inc. v. Dep’t of Health, Educ. and Welfare, 504 F.2d 238 (D.C.Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 421 U.S. 963, 95 S.Ct. 1951 (1975)).

[156] 55 N.C. App. at 11, 284 S.E.2d at 547.

[157] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-155.3.

[158] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-92(b).

[159] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-36-17.

[160] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(a).

[161] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-100.

[162] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-71-115(c).

[163] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-105(a).

[164] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-105(c).

[165] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-62-56(c).

[166] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 62-316.

[167] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-132(e).

[168] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-132(f).

[169] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-25.20.

[170] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-215.9D.

[171] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 65-54.1.

[172] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 89E-17.

[173] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(c)(4).

[174] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(i).

[175] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(c).

[176] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(k).

[177] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(e).

[178] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A.

[179] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(b).

[180] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(c).

[181] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(l).

[182] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(g).

[183] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(c).

[184] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(c).

[185] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(d).

[186] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(e).

[187] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(e).

[188] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(f).

[189] In re Custodial Law Enf’t Recording Sought by City of Greensboro, 266 N.C. App. 473, 479 (2019).

[190] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(g).

[191] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(g).

[192] In re Doug Miller Petitions for Release of Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Dep’t Recordings, 2018 NCBC LEXIS 211 (Sup. Ct. Mecklenburg 2018).

[193] Id at 4-5.

[194] Id at 5.

[195] Id.

[196] Id at 5-6.

[197] Id at 6.

[198] Thompson v. City of Charlotte, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57823 (2021).

[199] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(h).

[200] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4A(h).

[201] In re Southern Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 227 S.E.2d 645, 648 (1976).

[202] Id.

[203] 20 U.S.C. § 1232g. See, e.g., Student Press Law Center, What/where/when of sexual assaults is a FERPA secret, Illinois college claims, (July 17, 2016)

[204] 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(a)(4)(B)(ii).

[205] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(a).

[206] Ochsner v. Elon Univ., 725 S.E.2d 914, 920 (2012).

[207] Ochsner v. Elon Univ., 366 N.C. 472, S.E.2d 737 (2013).

[208] 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(b)(6)(B).

[209] DTH v. Folt, 374 N.C. 292, 305, 841 S.E.2d 251, 260 (2020).

[210] 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(b)(6)(C).

[211] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f).

[212] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(5)(B).

[213] 34 C.F.R. Part 668.

[214] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(1)(F)(iii).

[215] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(4)(A).

[216] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(4)(B)(i).

[217] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(4)(B)(iii).

[218] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(3).

[219] 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f)(3).

[220] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-109(a).

[221] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-902(2).

[222] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131D-10.3A(g).

[223] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4.

[224] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(b)(1).

[225] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(b)(2).

[226] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Starling, 312 N.C. 276, 322 S.E.2d 133 (1984).

[227] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(f).

[228] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-3001(b).

[229] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2901(b).

[230] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2902.

[231] News & Observer Pub. Co. v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465, 473 (1992).

[232] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(k). See also State v. Underwood, No. 95 CRS 4689 (N.C. Super. Ct. Sept. 26, 1996).

[233] Investigation into the Death of Nancy Cooper, 200 N.C. App. 180, 683 S.E.2d 418 (2009), rev. denied, 363 N.C. 855, 694 S.E.2d 201 (2010).

[234] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.6A.

[235] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.10(a).

[236] Id.

[237] Id.

[238] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.10(b).

[239] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-208.29.

[240] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(c)(6).

[241] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(d).

[242] Id.

[243] Memorandum from N.C. Att’y Gen. to City and County Attorneys and Police and Sheriffs’ Attorneys re Criminal Investigative Records Law (1993).

[244] Id.

[245] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.4(c)(4).

[246] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-832(h) and (i).

[247] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15B-8.1(b).

[248] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(d).

[249] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.5.

[250] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.3.

[251] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.3(c).

[252] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.3(a). 

[253] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(a)(3).

[254] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.2(7).

[255] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-190(a).

[256] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 125-19.

[257] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120C-405(a).

[258] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 120C-401.

[259] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.2(8).

[260] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.13(a).

[261] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-214.3(b).

[262] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-214.3(a).

[263] The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Pub. L. No. 104-191 (104th Cong., 2nd Sess.) (codified as amended in scattered sections of 18 U.S.C.; 26 U.S.C.; 29 U.S.C.; 42 U.S.C.), was enacted by Congress in 1996 to ensure and improve the continuity of health insurance coverage for U.S. workers changing jobs. In response to the legislation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services adopted standards that regulate how health care providers, health care plans and health care clearinghouses manage individual health care information to protect individual privacy. This Privacy Rule, 45 C.F.R. Parts 160, 162 and 164, went into effect in 2003.

[264] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8-53.

[265] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 130A-12, 143B-139.6.

[266] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-374(a).

[267] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-2-105(a).

[268] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-67-180.

[269] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 122C-52.

[270] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-45.8(a).

[271] See e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 130A-45.8(b), 131E-97(b).

[272] 10A N.C. Admin. Code 41A.0102 (January 9, 2019).

[273] 10A N.C. Admin. Code 41A.0101(a)(34) (July 1, 2020).

[274] 10A N.C. Admin. Code 41A.0101(a)(51) (July 1, 2020).

[275] 10A N.C. Admin. Code 41A.0101 (July 1, 2020).

[276] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-143(4).

[277] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-143(7a).

[278] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-143.  See also Act-Up Triangle v. Comm’n for Health Servs., 345 N.C. 699, 483 S.E.2d 388 (1997).

[279] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-212.

[280] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 135-48.10(a).

[281] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 135-48.10(a).

[282] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 58-67-180.

[283] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-207(b)-(c).

[284] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-95(b).

[285] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-21.22A(c).

[286] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-48.10.

[287] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-85.36(a).

[288] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 127A-17.1.

[289] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-1216.

[290] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.2(6).

[291] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(e).

[292] Id.

[293] Op.Atty.Gen., Kelly, Kelley, Oct. 5, 2005. 2005 WL 3067423, at *2 (N.C.A.G. Oct. 5, 2005)

[294] Multimedia Publ’g of v. Henderson Cnty., 136 N.C. App. 567, 525 S.E.2d 786, rev. denied, 351 N.C. 474, 543 S.E.2d 492 (2000) (quoting News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465, 480, 412 S.E.2d 7,16 (1992)).

[295] Boney Publishers, Inc. v. Burlington City Council, 151 N.C. App. 651, 659, 566 S.E.2d 701, 706 (2002).

[296] Piedmont Publ’g Co. v. Surry Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 24 Media L. Rep. (BNA) 1371 (N.C. Super. Ct. Aug. 4, 1995).

[297] 18 U.S.C. §§ 2721-2725.

[298] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-43.1.

[299] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 20-7(b2).

[300] The Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) and the Privacy of Your State Motor Vehicle Record, Electronic Privacy Information Center, (last visited Sept. 12, 2021).

[301] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-43.1(e).

[302] Id.


[303] Id.


[304] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-166.1(i).

[305] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-43.1.

[306] Public Records; Uniform Traffic Ticket and Complaint; Right of Public Inspection, 48 Op. N.C. Att’y Gen. 63 (1978).

[307] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-183(b).

[308] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 62-41.

[309] Advance Publ’ns v. City of Elizabeth City, 53 N.C. App. 504, 281 S.E.2d 69 (1981).

[310] Meetings of Public Bodies; Public Records, 51 Op. N.C. Att’y Gen. 79 (1982).

[311] Durham Herald Co. v. Low-Level Radioactive Waste Auth., 110 N.C. App. 607, 613, 430 S.E.2d 441, 445 (1993).

[312] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 136-28.5(a).


[313] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 136-28.5(b).

[314] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 136-28.5(c).


[315] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 159B-38.

[316] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.12(a).

[317] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 132-1.12(a) and (b).

[318] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168.

[319] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-98.

[320] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 126-22 to -24.

[321] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 115C-319 to -321.

[322] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-257.2.

[323] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(b1).

[324] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(b).

[325] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(a).

[326] News Reporter Co., Inc. v. Columbus County, 184 N.C. App. 512, 516, 646 S.E.2d 390, 393 (2007). See also, Associated Press v. Poulton, 16 Media L. Rep. (BNA) 2393 (N.C. Super. Ct. July 28, 1989); Public Records Request; Coaches’ Contracts; G.S. 132-1 et seq., 2003 WL 1154489 (N.C.A.G.).

[327] Knight Pub. Co. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth., 172 N.C. App. 486, 492, 616 S.E.2d 602, 607 (2005).


[328] Id. (citing Elkin Trib., Inc. v. Yadkin Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 331 N.C. 735, 737, 417 S.E.2d 465, 467 (1992)).


[329] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465, 412 S.E.2d 7 (1992).

[330] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-931.

[331] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-98(a).


[332] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 126-24.

[333] Id.

[334] See Amanda Martin, Personnel Information, First For a Reason: Info & Ideas About the First Amendment & Media Law (available at,674?)

[335] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 126-22(c).

[336] Elkin Tribune, Inc. v. Yadkin Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 331 N.C. 735, 417 S.E.2d 465 (1992); Durham Herald Co. v. Durham Cnty., 334 N.C. 677, 435 S.E.2d 317 (1993).

[337] Elkin Tribune, Inc. v. Yadkin Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 331 N.C. 735, 417 S.E.2d 465 (1992).

[338] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 128-28(q), 135-6(p).

[339] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(b)(8).


[340] See, e.g., N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-168(b1).

[341] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Baddour, No. 10 CVS 1941 (N.C. Super. Ct. May 12, 2011).

[342] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-169.

[343] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 147-64.6(d).

[344] N.C. Press Ass’n v. Spangler, 381 S.E.2d 187 (N.C. Ct. App. 1989).

[345] News & Observer Publ’g Co. v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465, 412 S.E.2d 7 (1992).

[346] Durham Public Schools Bd. of Educ. v. Bussian, No. 94 CVS 484 (N.C. Super. Ct. Feb. 18, 1994).

[347] Piedmont Publ’g Co. v. Surry Cnty. Bd. of Comm’rs, 24 Media L. Rep. (BNA) 1371 (N.C. Super. Ct. Aug. 4, 1995).

[348] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 148-74; 148-76.

[349] Goble v. Bounds, 13 N.C. App. 579, 186 S.E.2d 638 (1971), aff’d, 281 N.C. 307, 188 S.E.2d 347 (1972).

[350] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 148-118.5.

[351] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15-207.

[352] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 148-121(a).

[353] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 148-121(b)-(c).

[354] 34 U.S.C. § 60105(a).


[355] 34 U.S.C. § 60105(b).

[356] Criminal Justice Analysis Center, Death in Custody Reporting: Frequently Asked Questions, 1 (2019) (available at

[357] Id. at 2.

[358] Id. at 3.

[359] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 84-24.

[360] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 84A-2(f).

[361] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 93-12.2.

[362] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 93-12.2.

[363] Id.

[364] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-41(g).

[365] Id.

[366] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 89E-14(a)-(b).

[367] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 89E-14(c).

[368] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-390(c).

[369] Id.

[370] Id.

[371] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-16(c).

[372] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-16(g).


[373] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-16(f).

[374] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-270.148(e).


[375] Id.

[376] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 87-59(e).

[377] Public Records; Application for Licensure Received by the Board of Examiners for Speech and Language Pathologists and Audiologists, 45 Op. N.C. Att’y Gen. 188 (1976).

[378] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 108A-80(a), 108A-73, 108A-11.

[379] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 108A-80(b).

[380] Id.

[381] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(g).

[382] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(c).

[383] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 160A-311, 132-1.1(c).

[384] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.1(c)(2).

[385] Utilities Comm’n v. MCI Telecommunications Corp., 132 N.C. App. 625, 514 S.E.2d 276 (1999).

[386] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 62-17(a).


[387] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 62-19(a).

[388] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 62-316.

[389] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 124-3(c).

[390] S.E.L.C. v. N.C. Railroad, 2021-NCSC-84, ¶42-43 (August, 13, 2021).


[391] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.11(a)(5).

[392] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.10(e).

[393] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 135-6(i).

[394] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 128-28(j).

[395] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 115C-47(40), 115C-218.75(b), 115C-238.66(7a), 116-239.8(b)(10),

[396] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 115C-105.54(b), 115C-218.75(e), 115C-238.66(7d), 116-239.8(b)(13).

[397] Status of State Owned Computer Software Under G.S. 132-1, 1998 WL 459785 (N.C.A.G.).

[398] N.C. Gen. Stat. §132-1.1(b).

[399] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-259(a)(2).

[400] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-259(a).

[401] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-296(h).

[402] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-215(d).

[403] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-155(d).

[404] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 105-259(b).

[405] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-194(f).

[406] Id.

[407] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-208(a).

[408] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-208(b).

[409] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 104E-9(a)(4).

[410] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-152(3).

[411] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.2.

[412] Wilmington Star-News, Inc. v. New Hanover Reg’l Med. Ctr., 125 N.C. App. 174, 480 S.E.2d 53 (1997).

[413] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-152(2).

[414] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 131E-97.3(a).

[415] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 130A-45.11, 131E-97.3(a).

[416] Utilities Comm’n v. MCI Telecomms. Corp., 132 N.C. App. 625, 514 S.E.2d 276 (1999).

[417] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-579.11.

[418] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-284.44(f).

[419] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 74-88.

[420] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-410.

[421] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-110.14.

[422] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-111.17.

[423] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-197(a).

[424] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-152.

[425] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-52.

[426] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 116-222.

[427] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 74-88.


[428] Id.

[429] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-99(a).

[430] Id.

[431] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-110(d).

[432] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1.10(f1).

[433] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1321.10(f).

[434] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-93.

[435] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 48-9-107(c).

[436] N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 130A-93(e), 130A-102.

[437] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-93(f).

[438] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-93.1(a).

10. What can you do if you are denied access?
8. Can public officials destroy their records?

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