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Free public records are those that are available to the public. "Free" refers to freedom of access, but not always to price -- some states and federal agencies require an administrative fee to access certain types of information. On a national basis, access to free public records is governed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), dating back to the Johnson administration. Since that legislation became law, every state in the union has passed a similar bill regarding its own records.
The conflict involving free public records has always between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy. For the most part, the federal government (and most states) restrict access to the following:
1. Records that could, if released, compromise defense secrets.
2. Trade secrets.
3. Records relating to personnel matters.
4. Individual medical records.
On the most basic level, anything involving a legal procedure or transaction can be seen at the appropriate courthouse, where free public records are either kept in physical files or (increasingly) online. Court cases, divorces, marriages and real estate transfers are among those. In other cases, it may be necessary for the interested party to file a FOIA request.
By law, the federal government has 20 days in which to respond to a written request, excluding weekends and holidays. Response time among states can vary. There is no fee for filing a FOIA request, but charges may be levied for photocopying and, in the case of commercial entities, for processing the request. There have been occasions where the charge for producing "free public records" has had a chilling effect upon FOIA requests, especially those by individuals for whom the per-page cost of reproducing a 1,000-page report can become daunting.
If a FOIA request is denied, the requestee has the option of seeking redress through the courts. It is important to note that businesses and other private entities, such as private hospitals, are not covered under FOIA. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult for individuals to access even their own records when petitioning businesses.
Any Internet search will pull up dozens of companies that specialize in "people-finding" or ferreting out public records. Those that charge a fee for this should be checked out before using, since some merely list ways to access what are already free public records. A Congressional act passed in 1996 required certain types of public information to be made available online, but that is still an ongoing process in many places.