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Rhode Island revamps public records law to be more requestor-friendly

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  1. Freedom of Information
Rhode Island's governor signed into law yesterday what open records advocates have called the first major revisions in 14 years…

Rhode Island's governor signed into law yesterday what open records advocates have called the first major revisions in 14 years to its Access to Public Records Act — changes that will both make more records available and give requestors more rights under the act.

"It's a good bill, passed almost unanimously," Gov. Lincoln Chafee said in an interview to CBS affiliate WPRI-12 after the signing. "We're always criticized for being inaccessible and we struggle with some of our ethical issues in this state, so it’s always good to [let] sunshine in."

Among other changes, the new law strikes an old provision that exempted "all personal…information relating to an individual in any files." Under the new law, which will take effect on September 1, such records will be available to the public unless their release "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" or would violate other state or federal laws.

The change is explicitly modeled on Exemption 6 of the federal Freedom of Information Act, which uses a balancing test to weigh the public interest in release of the information against the privacy interest to determine whether to release records contained in personnel, medical, and "similar" files. Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, an organization that pressed for the change, said that in the past requesters had been frustrated by the old exemption, such as when they sought records about employees holding multiple pensions.

The new law also makes available to the public information from arrest logs within 48 to 72 hours after a request has been filed and obligates public bodies to identify a public information officer and make available information about how to file requests.

Officials will also be required to deliver records in the format requested, whether electronically, by fax or mail, except where to do so would be "unduly burdensome" based on the costs or volume of records requested.

In addition to these new procedural rights granted to requesters, new language states that requesters are not required to give a reason for their request or "provide personally identifiable information." Cavanagh said that the provisions are intended to remove intimidation and delay in the records request process, both of which she said occurred under the old law.

Finally, the law includes stiffer penalties for failing to comply; officials who knowingly or willingly violate the law can be fined up to $2,000 compared to the previous $1,000 fine limit.

Cavanagh said that although the new law does not include a suggested revision that would have made available as public records the correspondence of public officials acting in their official capacity, it was still considered a victory by the groups who advocated for reform of Rhode Island's public records act.

"It's been years and years of work on behalf of various organizations to bring this issue to light," said Cavanagh. "This is a major step forward for Rhode Island."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to Gov. Chafee on June 15, urging him to sign the bill to "ensure access to records that have been widely recognized as valuable to the public, and to give teeth to the existing law, which permits journalists and citizens to provide oversight to tax-funded officials."