Tuesday, September 25, 2012

[USA] Open Records and Freedom of Information Act

Posted by: Jan Meisels Allen

As genealogists,  we are many times stymied by impediments to access certain vital records by state laws that prevent certain information from being shared.  Most recently Virginia's law that includes provisions of its state public disclosure law that allow only its own residents access rights to public records. According to the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) there are eight states that currently have or had in the past similar restrictive provisions: Arkansas, Georgia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania,  Tennessee,  and Virginia..  see:
http://tinyurl.com/99emf8o
original url:
http://www.nfoic.org/nfoic-joins-opengov-amicus-brief-virginia-foia

Several groups and individuals are taking this provision to the U.S. Supreme Court. One individual is from Rhode Island and another from California who are challenging the Virginia Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA) provision on citizens of their state only to have access.   Two  Federal appellate courts
have each ruled differently which is why it is being appealed to the Supreme Court. A decision by the Supreme Court whether it will hear the case has not yet been rendered.

The NFOIC has on its website a listing of the State Freedom of Information Laws, http://tinyurl.com/8elu8f5
original url: http://www.nfoic.org/state-freedom-of-information-laws  as well as sample FOIA request letters.

As genealogists, we have also found some states no longer provide cause of death on death certificates--and family medical history is critical to know. A recent  law suit in Indiana bears watching on this point where an
individual and a newspaper--the Evansville Courier Press are suing the Vanderburgh County Health Department to obtain access on cause of death stating death records are public records, while the Health Department interprets the law to have cause of death restricted.  To read more go to:
http://tinyurl.com/8dm3xz5
original url:
http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2012/08/ind_govt_a_pike.html

Jan Meisels Allen
IAJGS Vice President
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee

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