About the Right-to-Know Law

Right-to-Know Law Statute

RTKL Flowchart: Request through Appeal
Supreme and Commonwealth Court RTKL Decisions
RTKL Legislative History (includes bill history and Legislative Journals)


FAQ

The current Right-to-Know Law was signed on February 14, 2008. Most of the current RTKL took effect on January 1, 2009, but the entire law took effect in three stages:

  • On February 14, 2008, the title and definitions went into effect and the Office of Open Records was officially created.
  • On July 1, 2008, the law required all state contracts exceeding $5,000 to be posted on Treasury's website.
  • On January 1, 2009, the remaining portions of the law went into effect.

Agencies now have the burden to establish why a record should not be released. Previously, the burden was on a requester to establish why a record was public.

Yes. The Office of Open Records Procedural Guidelines serve as guidance until formal regulations are approved.

The OOR has prepared an entire page to answer this question: How to File a Right-to-Know Request.

Generally, the best way to request records is to use the OOR's Standard RTK Request Form, which must be accepted by all agencies. (You can find a link to the form on the How to File a Right-to-Know Request page.) Some agencies also have their own forms, which you may find to be more useful. However, all agencies must accept the OOR's Standard Request Form.

Yes, an agency can ask -- but the requester is not required to answer.

The law prohibits an agency from requiring a person to disclose the purpose or motive in requesting access to records. However, in some cases knowing the answer could actually help an agency better respond to a request.

If you request records and are asked why, but you don't want to answer, one good approach is to politely remind the agency that your motive is not relevant to the request and to then respectfully decline to answer.

The Right-to-Know Law defines "Requester" as "a person that is a legal resident of the United States and requests records pursuant to this act."

The Office of Open Records has established an Official Fee Structure which governs the fees an agency may charge under the Right-to-Know Law. Generally, agencies cannot charge other fees. The RTKL states that, except as otherwise provided by statute, no other fees may be imposed unless the agency necessarily incurs costs for complying with the request, and such fees must be reasonable. No fee may be imposed for an agency's review of a record to determine whether the record is subject to access under the RTKL.

If a separate statute authorizes an agency to charge a set amount for a certain type of record, the agency may charge no more than that statutory amount. For example, a Recorder of Deeds may charge a copy fee of 50 cents per uncertified page and $1.50 per certified page under 42 P.S. § 21051.

Here are several basic steps every agency should take:

Appoint a good Agency Open Records Officer. Make sure this person can effectively manage requests and deal with the public. Make sure the AORO is registered with the OOR.

Review your records management policy and ensure that all employees comply with it. (If you don't have a records management policy, create one.)

Organize your records to help speed responses to RTKL requests.

Encourage all employees to make RTK requests a priority and let them know that the OOR is a good resource if they have questions. (We receive multiple emails and calls every day from agency employees, and we're always happy to answer.)

Attend one or more training sessions, or contact the OOR to request that one be scheduled in your area.

They can be. The RTKL doesn't distinguish between various types of records (e.g., printed letters and memos, electronic databases, emails). An email goes through the same analysis as any other record to determine whether it is a public record and subject to release.

No. The law states that an agency cannot limit the number of records which may be requested or made available for inspection or duplication. However, citizens should use good judgment in seeking records from the public body and not use this law to harass or overburden a public body from performing its job. Also, Section 506 of the RTKL allows an agency to deny repeated requests for the same records by the same requester.

Yes, a requester can ask. However, agencies are not required to provide records in response to verbal requests. Additionally, if a requester wants to file an appeal, the request must have been made in writing.

Yes. Specifically, Section 502(b)(1) provides that agency open-records officer must direct [Right-to-Know Law] requests to other appropriate persons within the agency, which includes affected agency employees. Additionally, Section 707(a) requires agencies to notify the person that is the subject of the record if releasing a record containing withholdable information. If additional time is needed to issue a response, agencies can invoke extensions of time pursuant to Section 902(a)(7). As a result, all agencies must provide due process considerations to agency employees affected by a Right-to-Know Law request.

Yes. The Supreme Court has ruled that itemized bills for cellular telephones paid by an agency are financial records that show a disbursement of public funds, despite the reimbursement for personal calls paid by the public. The Supreme Court also held that private telephone numbers (a type of personal identifier) must be redacted from the records before they can be disclosed.

  • 911 time response logs
  • Grant applications
  • Contracts involving government agencies
  • Settlement agreements
  • Agency decisions
  • Name, title, and salary of public employees and officials

  • Social Security numbers
  • Drivers license numbers
  • Employee numbers
  • Home, cellular or personal phone numbers
  • Personal financial information
  • Spouses name, marital status, beneficiary or dependent information
  • Home addresses of law enforcement and judges
  • Identity of confidential informants.
  • Records that identify social service recipients, including welfare recipients
  • A minors name, home address, date of birth.
  • Constituent requests to a member of the House or Senate
  • Library circulation cards
  • Pre-decisional deliberations

Yes. All records in the possession of an agency are covered by the RTKL, even if they are many decades old.

If an agency denies a record in bad faith, a court may impose a civil penalty of up to $1,500 per record. If the agency still refuses to disclose the record, a court may impose a penalty of up to $500 per day until the record is disclosed.

In general, an open-records officer is immune from civil penalties for denying a request. However, courts have discretion in regards to imposing penalties and costs for willful and wanton disregard of the law.

No. While vital statistics records are generally subject to the Right-to-Know Law, in some cases other statutory provisions have been enacted which trump the Right-to-Know Law. Birth records are not available under the RTKL.

No. But their records are subject to the law and must be made available as follows.

Local tax collectors are not considered "agencies" under the RTKL due to the Pennsylvania Local Tax Collection Law, 72 Pa. Cons. Stat. 5511.1-5511.42. 72 P.S. 5511.4c. entitled "Tax collection records" states as follows: "(c) This section shall not be construed to do any of the following: (1) Make a tax collector an "agency" or authorize requests of the tax collector for records pursuant to the act of June 21, 1957 (P.L. 390, No. 212), referred to as the Right-to-Know Law."

The Commonwealth Court in Current Status Inc. v. Hykel, 778 A.2d 781 (Pa. Cmwlth.) specifically addressed that question under the old RTKL concluding that local tax collectors are not subject to the RTKL. However, while the local tax collector is not itself an agency, the tax records that are maintained by that collector remain agency records, whether of the township, municipality or school district on whose behalf s/he collects.

The Commonwealth Court in Hykel carefully explained that the records of tax collectors are public and can be obtained directly from governmental units that qualify as agencies under the RTKL, just not directly from the tax collector. The records are public and must be provided by the agency to the extent not otherwise protected from disclosure. The agencies have delegated the task of tax collection to the collectors, as a third party, and the records attendant to performing that governmental function cannot be shielded from view even though the tax collector is not itself an agency. It remains the agencys responsibility to respond to the requester and to furnish copies or perform redaction if needed for any non-public parts of the records.

No. The Office of Open Records does not maintain or control the records of any local or Commonwealth agency. You must first direct your request to the appropriate office when seeking records. Our page regarding How to File a Right-to-Know Request has more information.

If an agency denies your request, you have a right to file an appeal of the denial with the Office of Open Records.

Yes and no.

The OOR has held that these records documenting the governmental activity of fire protection are public either through a contract with the municipality or political subdivision (PSD), or because the fire department is deemed a local agency due to its performance of a governmental function. Local agencies are defined under the law to include similar governmental entities. Due to their historical status as governmental entities, appellate case law has concluded that a volunteer fire company qualifies as a local agency or local authority in certain contexts based upon its governmental function and creation or incorporation to perform that function, pursuant to statute or otherwise. Fire companies that are created pursuant to a statute, particularly when incorporated by a PSD, qualify as local authorities as that term has been defined under the Statutory Construction Act. Fire companies that are incorporated by volunteer fire-men as non-profit corporations have been deemed sufficiently similar to government to qualify as agencies protected under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. Local volunteer fire companies are therefore directly subject to the RTKL as local agencies.

However, OOR decisions have been overturned by a number of Courts of Common Pleas, whose holdings are binding in their counties. Volunteer fire companies are currently not subject to the RTKL in Butler County, Columbia County, Tioga County, and York County.

Autopsy reports are publicly available under the Coroner's Act either: 1) on an annual basis for free when deposited with the County Prothonotary (30 days following the end of the calendar year), or 2) immediately for a fee from the Coroner prior to deposit with the County Prothonotary. Autopsy reports are expressly exempt from disclosure under Section 708(b)(20) of the RTKL; however, records of a decedent's name, and cause and manner of death are public records and available for immediate access under the RTKL.

The law states that the agency has the burden of proving why it is withholding or can't provide a record. Stating that records do not exist or making other factual assertions isn't enough for an agency to meet its burden of proof under the Right-to-Know Law when an appeal has been filed.

The Office of Open Records requires an agency to submit a formal attestation made subject to the penalty of perjury to support its assertion.

To help you, we have placed a form of this attestation made subject to the penalty of perjury on our website for your convenience. You can copy this and modify it for your agency's use.

Form - Attestation of Nonexistence