La. may allow minors to use open-records law

LOUISIANA — Seventeen-year-old Michael Barker is hoping the state legislature passes House Bill 492 before his birthday on Sept. 24.

If passed, the bill will amend the Louisiana Public Records Act to allow minors like Baker access to public records, something the current law prohibits. Barker, who helped convince a state legislator to file the bill, wants the bill to pass so that he can successfully file an open-records request as a minor, just to sweeten the icing on his birthday cake.

Barker, a junior at Jena High School, is a self-described “local politically active student” who filed several open-records requests with the LaSalle Parish School Board in June 2003. Barker asked for information related to technology the school system had recently purchased.

But because Barker was only 16 at the time of the request, the Louisiana Open Records Act did not require school board officials to grant his request, although the law did not prohibit them from doing so, Barker said.

To obtain public records in the state, the law requires a person to have reached the age of majority, which is 18 years of age in Louisiana.

Louisiana is the only state to deny minors access to public records.

Barker knew that legally the school board had no obligation to turn over the records he requested, but he decided to try nonetheless.

The 17-year-old received the records in January after an adult friend requested them on his behalf.

“[The current law] not only affects people like me who are interested in politics, but it also affects student journalists, and that’s what the main concern for me is, that student journalists are not being allowed access to records because of their age,” Barker said.

After researching the Louisiana Public Records Act and a recommendation suggesting the amendment from the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan research group, Barker contacted Rep. Tommy Wright, D-Jena, who agreed to sponsor the bill in the House.

“There shouldn’t be any reason we would want to not share public information with someone who’s less than 18 years old,” Wright said.

The amendment would allow any person in the state access to public records, but those under 18 years of age would only be allowed to receive copies of requested records and would not be able to inspect the records where they are kept, said Charlotte Bergeron, a research analyst and staff attorney at the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

“The idea is [that] a very young person would not understand how important original paper records are,” Bergeron said.

The Louisiana House of Representatives passed the bill April 16, and it was referred to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs April 20.

Wright believes the bill has a good chance of being passed, especially since Louisiana stands alone in denying minors access to public records.

Barker is simply hoping the law passes, even if it is not until after his 18th birthday.

“This would be a big stride for the state,” Barker said. “I believe this will be a great show that Louisiana is open to change in the ways that it operates … and [that] Louisiana is concerned and interested in allowing the young people of its state access to political records and [helping them] become more politically involved.”