When I request records, do I have to explain why I want them?

Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Ask SPLC.”

Q: Am I required to explain why I want a particular record when submitting an open records request?

A: Almost always, states and the federal government FOI laws make clear that the motivation behind an open records request is irrelevant. Recordkeepers, most laws say, may not even ask such a question. There are a few quirks, but for student journalists engaged in bona fide news reporting (no matter the topic), they should present no barrier. 

For example, a couple of states treat requests for data that will be used for commercial profit differently, sometimes charging extra fees. Also, Kansas and Montana have both had odd cases handed down (older cases — but still on the books) where judges have allowed government agencies to examine whether the interest in the information is legitimate or sufficient to overcome competing interests in secrecy. Kansas, for example, apparently limits the right of the public to inspect governmental records to those situations where “there is a laudable object to accomplish or a real and actual interest in obtaining the information.” (Such a provision should not present a barrier to Kansas student media engaged in newsgathering.)

If your motives or purposes for requesting public information is questioned, you are right to push back and reach out to the SPLC’s free legal hotline.

Legal questions should be directed toward SPLC’s legal hotline. Ask SPLC questions will be selected based on trends in the legal hotline. The legal hotline is confidential and no identifying information will be used in the Ask SPLC segment.