A bill rewriting Pennsylvania’s 50-year-old open records law, long considered to be one of the worst such laws in the country, was signed by Gov. Ed Rendell on Feb. 14.
Previously, all state and local records were closed to citizens who otherwise had to prove why they should have access to the records. Also, the state’s 1957 Right to Know Act had a very narrow definition of what constituted a public record.
Under the new law, all records are presumed to be open to public inspection unless they are included on a list of exceptions. Also, the agencies themselves must now show why a record should be kept private.
The new law establishes an Office of Open Records to resolve the inevitable disputes arising over access to records. The office would be responsible for mediating disagreements between requestors and agencies over whether access to specific records would be in the public interest.
Critics of the bill argued that keeping records private would protect personal privacy and guard against identity theft. The bill was revised to prohibit, for example, the release of names and addresses of children 17 or younger, or the personal information of senior citizens’ program participants.