About the Right-to-Know Law

Right-to-Know Law Statute ( ) and Legislative History ()
RTKL Flowchart: Request through Appeal ( , updated Oct. 31, 2018)
RTKL Case Law Index (, updated January 12, 2021)
Please note that the "Key RTKL Opinions" document, the predecessor to the RTKL Case Law Index, received its final update on Nov. 18, 2019, but it remains available ()


FAQ

The current Right-to-Know Law was introduced by Senator Dominic Pileggi as Senate Bill 1 on March 29, 2007. It was signed into law on Feb. 14, 2008. Most of the current RTKL took effect on Jan. 1, 2009, but the entire law took effect in three stages:

  • On Feb. 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 the Pennsylvania Treasury's website.
  • On Jan. 1, 2009, the remaining portions of the law went into effect.

Under the current RTKL, all state and local government agency records are presumed to be public. This means that if an agency wants to withhold a record, it must prove that it is entitled to do so under the RTKL, another law or regulation, privilege (such as attorney-client privilege), or court order. Also, the current law established the Office of Open Records which makes it simple and free for a requester to appeal an agency denial.

Under the old law, the burden was on a requester to establish why a record was public. Also, all appeals went to court, which can be expensive and tends to be a far more time-consuming process than an appeal to the OOR.

The OOR updated its Procedural Guidelines on Sept. 29, 2015. Those serve as guidance until formal regulations are approved.

The OOR has posted draft regulations here. The first draft was posted on March 1, 2017, and an updated draft was posted on Dec. 30, 2020.

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 from a state or local agency in Pennsylvania 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.

You might also find it helpful to search the OOR's database of agency open records officers to find the best person to direct your request to.

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. 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.

However, in some cases knowing the answer could actually help an agency better respond to a request. So, depending on the circumstances, a requester may want to provide the information even though you are not required to do so.

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." Thus, any legal resident of the United States can file a request under the RTKL.

It's also worth noting that while the RTKL does not define "person," that term is defined in the Statutory Construction Act as "a corporation, partnership, limited liability company, business trust, other association, government entity (other than the Commonwealth), estate, trust, foundation or natural person."

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 $0.50 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 does not distinguish between various types of records (e.g., printed letters and memos, electronic databases, emails, itemized cell phone bills, etc.). Every record goes through the same two-part analysis to determine whether it is a public record and subject to release:

1. Is it a record? (In other words, does it document a transaction or activity of an agency?)

2. If so, is it a public record? (Or can it be withheld under the RTKL, another law or regulation, a privilege, or a court order?)

As a general rule, agencies must provide aggregated data and financial records.

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, requesters should use good judgment in seeking agency records. The RTKL should not be used to harass or overburden an agency. Also, Section 506 of the RTKL allows an agency to deny repeated requests for the same records by the same requester.

A requester can ask, but agencies are not required to provide records in response to verbal requests. (Of course, sometimes it makes good sense for agencies to do so. For example, there's very little sense in requiring a formal RTKL request for a copy of meeting minutes.)

Additionally, if a requester wants to file an appeal, the request must have been made in writing.

Yes. Section 502(b)(1) provides that an agency open records officer (AORO) must direct RTKL requests to other appropriate persons within the agency. 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 RTKL request.

If such a request is denied and appealed to the OOR, the agency will be directed to notify appropriate third parties who can complete this form to request Direct Interest Participant status from the OOR.

Yes. If an agency enters into a settlement agreement, it is public in Pennsylvania. The only exception is if the agreement has been sealed by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Sometimes, settlement agreements contain provisions stating that the agreement will not be provided in response to a RTKL request. Such language has no effect. If a valid RTKL request is made, the settlement agreement must be provided.

The RTKL includes 30 exceptions agencies may use to withhold records. (Those are found in Section 708(b).) Sometimes, another law or regulation allows or requires an agency to withhold records. Certain privileges, such as attorney-client privilege, and court orders can also come into play.

Some of the records agencies may withhold under the 30 exceptions in the RTKL include:

  • Social Security numbers
  • Driver's license numbers
  • Employee numbers
  • Home, cellular or personal phone numbers
  • Personal financial information
  • Personal medical information
  • Spouse's 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 minor's name, home address, date of birth.
  • Constituent requests to a member of the House or Senate
  • Library circulation information
  • Internal, predecisional deliberations
  • DNA and RNA records

As a general rule, agencies must provide aggregated data and financial records.

Yes. Although the RTKL took effect on Jan. 1, 2009, all records in the possession of an agency are covered by the RTKL. This is true even if the records are many years, decades, or even centuries 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 agency 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 RTKL, in some cases (including adoption records) other laws trump the RTKL.

Likewise, birth records are not available under the RTKL.

The OOR's list of Commonly Misdirected Requests includes more information.

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.

In Hykel, the Commonwealth Court 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 OOR 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 you send the original request to the OOR (unless you are actually seeking OOR records), you will only delay the process.

If a state or local agency denies your request, you generally have a right to appeal that denial to the OOR.

It depends. Not all volunteer fire companies are organized the same way in Pennsylvania, so there is no hard-and-fast rule across the state.

The Commonwealth Court has held in two cases, Bohman and WNEP-TV v. Clinton Twp. Vol. Fire Co. (OOR Dkt. AP 2017-0421) and Pysher v. Clinton Twp. Vol. Fire Co. (OOR Dkt. AP 2017-0403), that a a case-by-case analysis of several factors is needed to determine what records, if any, are available from a volunteer fire company. The OOR has done such an analysis in several cases, including Aikens v. Clymer Volunteer Fire Company (OOR Dkt. AP 2018-0296).

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.

Under the RTKL, an agency has the burden of proving that is is permitted to (or, in some cases, required to) withhold a record. Merely stating that a record does not exist or making other factual assertions isn't enough for an agency to meet its burden of proof.

In general, an agency must submit an affidavit sworn to under the penalty of perjury to support its assertion. To assist agencies, the OOR has posted numerous sample affidavits on its website which can be downloaded and modified for agency use. Other useful documents are also available.

These can be found on the RTKL Forms page of the OOR website.