FOREWORD

The Virginia General Assembly enacted the Freedom of Information Act ("the Act") in 1968. Through this Act, the legislature sought to secure to the Commonwealth's citizens access to public records and meetings not specifically exempted by law.

The Act has undergone numerous revisions. Some amendments have strengthened the Act by authorizing the award of civil penalties and attorneys' fees for non-compliance, or by shifting the burden to prove the applicability of exclusions onto the public body. Other amendments, particularly the Act's steadily growing list of discretionary exclusions have narrowed its effectiveness. Finally, some amendments, particularly those relating to electronic meetings and records, have responded to technological changes in the way that information is recorded, processed and delivered.

The General Assembly has mandated that the Act be "liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government." Moreover, the Act's exemptions are to "be narrowly construed in order that no thing which should be public may be hidden from any person."

These rules of construction are consistently acknowledged by the courts, but not always applied with full vigor. Virginia courts often appear reluctant to provide a remedy under the Act unless there is a substantial and willful violation of its provisions. However, where such evidence exists, the courts have shown their willingness to penalize those who attempt to deny to the public that which they have a right to know.

Opinions of the Attorney General of Virginia do not bind the Virginia courts, but are persuasive authority. They are occasionally, but not comprehensively, cited in this outline because they are frequently relied upon by public bodies subject to the Act. In addition, a growing body of opinions has been issued by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, created by the General Assembly in 2000, to act as a source of both formal and informal advice for citizens, including public officials and press representatives. To date, the opinions of the Council, which are not binding on the courts, have shown a tendency toward the "middle of the road" rather than an aggressive pro-access bias. They are available online, and are not cited in this outline. However, anyone researching an issue under the Act is well-served to search both Attorney General and Advisory Council opinions for relevant discussion of these statutes.