Ohio Freedom of Information Act
What is the Ohio Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives the public the right to access records from government agencies and make copies of such records where required. It plays an essential role in exposing government misconduct at all levels and keeping them accountable and transparent in all its dealings. Ohio established its FOIA in 1963 and codified it as the Ohio Open Records Act in Section 149.43 of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC).
Under the Ohio Public Records Act, any individual may request copies of public records or inspect them from a public agency keeping the records. Unless required by a specific law, a record requester does not have to state a reason for wanting to inspect or copy a record or provide their name. A public agency or its record custodian must organize and maintain public records in its possession in a way that can be readily made available for copying or inspection (Division B(2), Section 149.43 of the ORC). Public agencies subject to the Ohio Public Records Act include any state agency, political subdivision, or any other organized institution or agency established by Ohio State laws for governmental functions. The Public Records Act also covers state and local government agencies not directly operated by a political subdivision and private entities but serving as functional equivalents of some public bodies.
Since its enactment in 1963, the Ohio Open Records Act has been amended several times by multiple actions of the state's General Assembly. Per Section 1.52(B) of the ORC, amendments must be reconciled if reasonably capable of simultaneous operations. Some of the harmonized amendments of the Ohio Open Records Act in recent times and their versions are:
- Amended by HB 59 on September 29, 2013
- Amended by SB 23 on March 20, 2015
- Amended by HB 663 on March 23, 2015
- Amended by HB 64 on September 29, 2015
- Amende by HB 359, HB, 317, and SB 321 on September 8, 2016
- Amended by HB 471 on December 19, 2016
- Amended by HB 8, HB 34, and HB 312 on November 2, 2018
- Amended by SB 201, HB 341, HB 8, HB 312, SB 214, HB 139, SB 229, HB 425, and HB 34 on April 8, 2019
- Amended by HB 166 on October 17, 2019
- Amended by SB 284 on March 24, 2021
- Amended by SB 284 and SB 4 on September 7, 2021
- Amended by HB 110 on September 30, 2021
What is Covered Under the Ohio Freedom of Information Act?
In Ohio, any paper or electronic document, device, or item, regardless of its form, created, collected, and kept by a public agency, is a public record. Such materials/records document a public agency's policies, operations, procedures, functions, decisions, and other official activities and are subject to the Ohio Open Records Act unless they fall under exempt records. They include papers, videos, email, text messages, voicemail, computer files, photographs, and maps.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Ohio?
In Ohio, some records are exempt from public disclosure to avoid revealing information that would jeopardize the state's security and invade an individual's privacy. According to Section 149.43(A)(1) of the Ohio Revised Code, a public agency may not disclose the following exempt records:
- Records on adoption proceedings, including an adoption file and their details maintained by the Ohio Department of Health
- Medical records
- Confidential investigatory records of law enforcement
- DNA records kept in the DNA database
- Records kept by the Department of Youth Services on children under its supervision and released to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
- Inmate records released to the Department of Youth Services or a court by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction
- Information on a person's recreational activities under 18 years
- Examinations, test materials, or evaluation tools used to examine people for licensure as a nursing home administrator administered by the board of executives of long-term services and supports
- Information and financial statements submitted to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency by a person for any purpose and other information that identifies direct or indirect beneficiaries from the agency's financial assistance
- Any record whose disclosure is prohibited by state or federal law
- Protected health data in a healthcare product or service claim payment and any other health claims information in another document that reveals or could be used to reveal the subject's identity
- Intellectual property records
- Telephone numbers of a person involved in a motor vehicle accident on any law enforcement record or report
- Information provided by a witness who has been reasonably promised confidentiality
- Any information that, if disclosed, would endanger the safety or life of a law enforcement officer, a witness, or a crime victim
- Any information/document compiled in anticipation of or defense of a criminal or civil proceeding
- Profile records of donors or would-be donors to a public establishment, except their names and reported addresses and the amount and date of donation
- Familial and residential information on a public service personnel
- Personally identifiable information of a person participating in the address confidentiality program established under Sections 111.41 to 111.47 of the Ohio Revised Code
- Records on probation and parole proceedings
How Do I File an Ohio Freedom of Information Act Request?
Anyone can file an Open Records Act request in Ohio by asking the person or public body responsible for such records. However, a person must first determine the public agency keeping such specific existing records. Although stating the purpose of requesting a record is not mandatory, declaring it may sometimes help a public agency find a requested document/record more efficiently. A record request must be detailed and specifically describe the record sought so that the public agency can identify records promptly based on how it maintains the public records in its custody. It will be difficult for a public agency to produce a public record whose underlying request is extremely broad or ambiguous.
Generally, under the Ohio Open Records Act, a requester can file a public record request in any way they deem convenient. They can also choose how they want copies of records sought delivered, which may be by mail, pick-up, or email. Typically, a person can file an Open Records Act request online, in person, by phone, email, or mail. For instance, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides an eDocument Search System for obtaining electronic copies of the agency's public records. A person who cannot find a document/record on the eDocument system can complete the EPA online form to request paper copies. They can also submit their request by email or mail it to:
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Central Office
P.O. Box 1049
Columbus, OH 42316-1049
Also, a person interested in obtaining criminal investigation reports or other public records maintained by the Ohio State Highway Patrol can file their request by email. They can also submit it via mail, facsimile, or telephone at:
Ohio State Highway Patrol
P.O. Box 182074
Columbus, OH 43218-2074
Phone: (614) 466-3536
Fax: (614) 644-9749
If in doubt of where and how to submit a public record request under the Ohio Public Records Act, contact the public agency that maintains the record sought. The Ohio State government shares a directory of its state agencies on its website for public use.
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Ohio?
Inspecting a public record at any public agency's office in Ohio comes at no cost. However, the Ohio Public Records Act allows public agencies to charge requesters the actual cost for copies of public records made unless the fee is otherwise set by statute. The Act also permits public agencies to request the payment of copying costs in advance. For example, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) charges a $5 fee for obtaining a driving record history.
Required fees usually include the actual costs of making copies, packaging the records, postage, and other charges, depending on the delivery method or transmission desired by the requester. The Ohio Public Records Act prohibits public agencies from including the cost of employees in the fees for copying or delivering copies of public records. A public agency is not obliged to provide free copies of a public record to a person who indicates unwillingness or inability to pay the cost of sought records.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Ohio?
The Ohio FOIA does not define the exact time limits that public agencies must respond to public record requests. However, Section 149.43B(1) of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) stipulates that public bodies must make copies of sought public records available to requesters within a reasonable period. If a requested public record contains exempt information, the public agency must redact such information and make the non-exempt part of the record available to the requester. However, the public agency or a person responsible for the public record must inform the requester of any redaction.
A public agency may deny a public record request if it is ambiguous or if the agency cannot reasonably identify the sought record. However, the agency must allow the requester to rework their record request to help it (the agency) locate the required document/record more quickly. A public agency must notify a public record requester in writing, explaining why a request is ultimately denied, in part or whole. Per Section 149.43(C)(1) of the ORC, an individual who deems their record request denial as a violation of the Ohio Open Records Act may file litigation. They may initiate a mandamus action to obtain a court judgment asking the public agency to make the sought record available to them.