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Public Records

Updated: 02/16/2012

 

  1. Public Records Training
  2. What is a Public Record?
  3. The Public’s Right to Access Public Records
  4. Exceptions:  Confidential Records and Records That Are Not “Public”
  5. Responding to a Request for a Public Record
  6. Email and the Public Records Law
  7. Retaining Public Records
  8. Approved University e-mail tag line

 

Public Records Training

The Office of General Counsel has created a 9-minute online tutorial to provide you with a general overview that summarizes most of the content contained on the Public Records webpage. You are encouraged to view this training module if you have general questions about public records. For more detailed information about public records, please continue reviewing the Public Records webpage. For all other questions and legal advice on this topic, please contact the University Records Officer in the Office of General Counsel.

Public Records Tutorial

What is a Public Record?

A public record is any document, regardless of physical form, that is made or received in connection with the public business of any state agency.  “Regardless of physical form” means that films, audio tapes, pictures, photographs, computer files and email, etc. may be considered public records, as well as traditional paper records. (G.S. 132).

The Public’s Right to Access Public Records

Who has a right to access public records?

In general, any person may inspect public records from a government agency during reasonable business hours and under reasonable supervision.  The individual requesting to see the public records does not have to give any reason why they wish to see the record. However, refer all public records requestors to the University Records Officer in the Office of General Counsel before providing access to your records.

Must computer records be available also?

Computerized records must also be available to the public.

What about historical documents that could be damaged?

For old or fragile records, public access may be restricted to the extent needed to protect the records.

Who must provide the public records?

Only the custodian of the records is responsible for providing access to those records under her/his control.  This means that an office does not have a responsibility to make copies of another office’s records.  A custodian is also not required to create or compile records that do not exist to fulfill a request. Under the NCSU regulation on public records, the University Records Officer is charged the responsibility to coordinate the collection of records for public inspection. Therefor, custodians should always consult with the University Records Officer in the Office of General Counsel before providing access to their records. See NCSU REG04.00.02 - Public Records Request for more information.

Exceptions:  Confidential Records and Records That Are Not “Public”

Some records maintained and created by the University are confidential and are not available for public inspection.  Some examples of confidential records are:

  • Trade secrets: information owned by private individuals or companies and labeled as confidential when provided to the University, including formulas, patterns, devices, and other technical information (See Public Records Law and G.S. 66-152)
  • Library user records (G.S. 125-19)
  • Certain law enforcement records
  • An attorney’s written communications when the attorney is representing the University. However, these communications must be regarding actual or potential legal claims and in the scope of the attorney’s duty.  Having a lawyer prepare records not concerning litigation will not make all information from that record confidential (News & Observer Publishing v. Poole, 330 N.C. 465 (1992)).
  • State agencies may make some information confidential concerning expansion or attempts to attract other businesses to the area.
  • Most medical records kept by doctors (G.S. 8-53)
  • Prescriptions (G.S. 90-85.36(a))
  • Most records from psychologists and other counselors that fall under the physician-patient privilege (G.S. 8-53.3 and 8-53.4)
  • Information about employees and applications for employment (G.S. 126-22)
  • Education records of students in attendance at NC State
  • Personally identifiable information from or about an applicant for admission to NC State (except that communications from elected officials about applicants remain public records)
  • Bids for State contracts before the award of the contract (G.S. 143-52)
  • Settlement documents from suits or arbitration in which any State agency is a party and are ordered sealed by the court.

Always refer someone requesting records to the University Records Officer in the Office of General Counsel. That officer will then advise you on the matter.

Responding to a Request for a Public Record

NCSU REG04.00.02 - Public Records Request details how a custodian should respond to a request for a public record.  In essence, however, the first step is to refer the requestor to the University Records Officer in the Office of General Counsel.

It is important for all University employees to understand that anyone who is denied access to public records may seek a court action to compel the University to turn over the records.  In the court action, the University has the burdens at trial to show the record was confidential.  The presumption is that all State records should be open to the public.

Email and the Public Records Law

Email can be a public record, if it is made or received by a state employee in connection with State business.  Email that is a public record must be retained according to the applicable Record Retention schedule.  Thus each email user should be familiar with NCSU REG01.25.12 - University Record Retention and Disposition.

There are many helpful resources concerning managing email as a public record.  Please see the following for additional information:

E-mail as a Public Record in North Carolina: A Policy for Its Retention and Disposition

Guidelines for E-mail as a Public Record in North Carolina: Tips and Tricks for Using Microsoft Exchange Software to Manage E-mail

Managing your Inbox:  Email as a Public Record

There are two key exceptions to this rule that are important to remember when managing your email.

  • Personal email is not public record.
  • Purely administrative email of ephemeral or rapidly diminishing value may be erased or destroyed when the user has determined that its reference value has ended.

Concerning this administrative email of diminishing value, the Division of Archives has provided further detail:  “E-mail is also used to transmit and receive messages which may have reference or administrative value but which are simultaneously of an ephemeral, temporary, or transient nature.  As such, e-mail of this kind functions in some ways like telephone calls or telephone messages. Such messages remain public records but may be treated as having a reference or administrative value which ends when the user no longer needs the information such a record contains.  E-mail of ephemeral or rapidly diminishing value may be erased or destroyed when the user has determined that its reference value has ended.”

Approved University e-mail tag line

The university has approved a recommended tag line to add to employee signature blocks for university e-mail communications. The language is as follows: "All electronic mail messages in connection with State business which are sent to or received by this account are subject to the NC Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties."

Questions

Please address questions to the University Records Officer in the Office of General Counsel.  Additional information can be found by visiting the website of the Government Records Branch of North Carolina.