Freedom of Information
Texas Public Information Act
The Texas Open Records Act was revised in the 1995 session of the legislature to include for the first time information stored electronically in computers. At the same time the name of the law was changed to the Texas Public Information Act.
Texas has had an open or public records law since 1973. The law grants access by the public to information held by governmental agencies. Before 1973, such records were not necessarily available.
The issue involving public records is an age-old one. Those who have control over the records want to limit access to them for all kinds of reasons. Citizenry, represented by the news media, believe that government and government records should be open.
It’s a traditional clash with the media taking the lead in reminding government officials that they are in fact public servants and that records do belong to the public. A study by The Dallas Morning News in 1993 revealed that many governmental agencies in the state routinely ignored requests for information covered under the Open Records Act.
The revised Texas Public Information Act begins with this pronouncement:
Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy.
This chapter shall be liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information.
—Government Code Chapter 552.
The revised act establishes a fee schedule for state and local governments to use in providing requested public records and a way to request records that are not created or stored by the government agency in the exact format the person requesting the information needs. Features of the new public information law apply to all levels of government in Texas, even local cities and police departments.
As an example, records stored in a typical fashion by an agency may be requested in a more usable format. A procedure for doing that is established in the new law. The agency may charge for providing the information as requested.
A government agency that receives an open records request must provide the information within 10 days unless the agency believes the requested information falls under one of the 26 exemptions to the law. If the agency believes the request falls in that category it must request an attorney general’s opinion.
The attorney general’s office must respond to this request for an opinion within 60 days or the information request will be automatically granted.
The attorney general’s office maintains an Open Government Hotline at 512 478 6736 or toll free at 877 673 6839.
If a person needs help getting information from any governmental agency, including local agencies, a compliance officer is available in the Open Records Division of the Attorney General's Office in Austin. The telephone number is 512 475 2497. Most recently the person in charge has been Hadassah Schloss. The office e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Schloss’ e-mail address is email@example.com.
The Texas Public Information Act does not require the release of information contained in records of an educational agency or institution. In a 1996 case, the 14th Court of Appeals ruled that the Klein Independent School District must release information to the parents of a student in the district.
Law Enforcement Information
One of the ongoing controversies has to do with information compiled by law enforcement agencies. Once upon a time, such reports were normally available to the press, although the access was not required by law.
A section in the Public Information Act exempts information held by law enforcement agencies or prosecutors that deals with “the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime.”
The attorney general’s office has tried to clarify what that means in a series of rulings.
One of the rulings said that law enforcement agencies that followed the practice of providing records before the Open Records Act was passed were not prohibited by the act from continuing that practice. The intention of the legislature was not, the ruling said, “to close to the press sources of information to which it had access under prior agency policies.”
In 1976, the Supreme Court of Texas in an appeal brought by the Houston Chronicle ruled that the front pages of offense reports and administrative reports must be made available.
A ruling by the Supreme Court in Holmes v. Morales in 1996 said that only the most basic facts of closed criminal cases must be divulged. The case was brought by John B. Holmes Jr., the district attorney of Harris County. The ruling permits district attorneys to withhold closed case files from the public.
The Attorney General’s Opinion
In 1999 the attorney general issued an opinion about basic information that must be released by law enforcement agencies.
The information that must be released is:
- The name, age, address, race, sex, occupation, alias and physical condition of an arrested person;
- The date and time of the arrest;
- The offense charged and the court in which it is filed;
- The details of an arrest;
- Booking information;
- The notation of any release or transfer;
- Bonding information;
- The location of the crime;
- The identification and description of the complainant;
- The premises involved;
- The time of the occurrence of the crime;
- The property involved;
- The vehicles involved, if any.
- A description of the weather;
- A detailed description of the offense; and
- The names of the arresting and investigating officers.
Texas Public Information Handbook
An excellent book about the Public Information Act is available from the attorney general’s office. It is the Public Information Handbook and it may be obtained by writing the attorney general’s office at Post Office Box 12548, Austin 78711-2548 or by telephone at 512 463 2100.
The attorney general’s web site is www.oag.state.tx.us.
Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas
Since 1978, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has been a force for open government in the state.
The foundation was begun with a grant from the Belo Foundation, and it has been supported through the years by a host of media companies, law firms and individuals.
The foundation operates with a board of directors and an advisory council.
The foundation publishes a Texas Freedom of Information Handbook. It publishes a quarterly newsletter. It has an annual meeting and sponsors ongoing educational programs.
The foundation operates an FOI hotline 24 hours a day at 1 800-580-6651.