Can my school deny a public records request because of COVID-19?

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

Q: I recently submitted an open records law request to my public school for budgetary information related to a time-sensitive story I’m working on. No one is disputing that the records are “public records” that must be disclosed. However, yesterday I received a response from the school telling me they are “not in a position to respond to your request at this time, given the disruption to operations brought about by the pandemic and state of emergency. Your request will be addressed in due course as conditions allow.” I understand that things are not normal right now, but is this vague, blanket denial permissible? 

 Probably not — but it will depend on where your school is located. Nearly two months after much of the country shifted their workforce to social distancing models, reporters are continuing to receive a lot of “COVID-19 excuses.” And while the pandemic has significantly changed how all of us, including our government agencies, are conducting business, there is no blanket COVID-19 exemption for denying access to otherwise public government records or meetings. Most, though not all, states have invoked “state of emergency” provisions that have allowed them to modify — not eliminate — the way they respond to records requests or conduct public meetings. You will want to check to see what the current rules are in your state.

The best source I know for tracking changes to state and federal FOI laws during COVID-19 is the free COVID-19 Federal and State Public Records and Open Meetings Measures hosted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. 

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.