Citizen’s guide to S.C. Freedom of Information

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S.C. Press Association

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) makes records and meetings of public bodies open and available to citizens and their representatives in the press.

As a citizen of South Carolina, you have the right to attend meetings of commissions, councils, boards and other public bodies. You have a right to see and copy records of public bodies. The FOIA – also known as the Sunshine Law because it shines light on government meetings and records – is essential to our democratic form of government.

Who, what is covered?

A “public body” is any entity supported by public funds, even in part, or that expends public funds.

A record cannot be withheld and a meeting cannot be closed unless a specific exemption or some other state law applies.

Public records

The law says public records include all books, papers, maps, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that is prepared, owned, used, in the possession of or retained by a public body. This includes electronic records such as emails.

If part of a document can legally be shielded from release, that doesn’t mean the entire document may be withheld. The agency must separate the exempt data and release the rest of it (this usually means taking a marker and blacking out some information).

u Do I have to file a formal FOI request to get information?

Before filing a formal FOI request, you may want to call or visit the public body and just ask for the information you’re seeking. A formal FOI request may not be needed.

u How do I file an FOI request?

There is no required form, but your FOI request must be in writing. Just ask for what you want and mention the words “freedom of information.” Mail, fax or deliver it to the public body. Be specific in what you ask for.

u How much can a public body charge me for providing the records?

A public body may charge only the actual cost of gathering and copying records in response to your request. A reasonable cost is 10 to 25 cents a page.

u How long will it take to get a response?

When the public body gets your FOI request, it has 15 working days to respond as to whether it will comply or claim an exemption.

If the public body does not respond at all within the allotted 15 days, the FOI request is considered granted.

u What kinds of records are not required to be disclosed under the FOIA?

Public bodies in the Palmetto State are able to withhold certain specific records. Exemptions include:

– Highly personal information such as Social Security numbers.

– Trade secrets of public bodies and tax standards used by the Department of Revenue

– Legal correspondence violating attorney-client privilege

– Certain police records that would harm the agency’s efforts in a specific case

– Contract documents until the contract is completed, including the sale of property

– Industrial development offers until the offer is accepted

u Is certain information specified as open to the public without question?

Yes. Most importantly, any information taken from an account, voucher or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public funds is specified in the law as open. Also specified as open are names of employees, staff manuals and instructions, minutes of meetings and law enforcement reports on crimes.

u Are salaries public information?

Yes, with certain limits. The FOIA requires release of exact salaries of public employees who make $50,000 or more. Below that, salaries must be released in $4,000 ranges.

Public meetings

The law says a public meeting is a gathering of a quorum (simple majority) of a public body, either in person or by telephone or computer, to discuss or act upon public business. All meetings of public bodies are open and public notice of the meetings must be given 24 hours in advance.

u Who can attend a public meeting?

The public has a right to attend and record or film meetings, work sessions and retreats of all public bodies unless closed for limited and specific reasons.

u How do I know when a public body is meeting?

The FOIA requires public bodies to announce the schedule of regular meetings at the first of each year, and if there is an agenda, to make it available at least 24 hours before the scheduled meeting.

u When can a public body close its meeting to the public?

There are certain exemptions in the FOIA that a public body may use to go into a closed meeting. Exemptions include:

– Discussions of the hiring, firing, promotion or discipline of an employee or student

– Discussion of contract negotiations, including the sale of property

– Receipt of legal advice (public bodies may receive legal advice behind closed doors when it relates to a pending claim, the position of the public body in an adversarial matter or any matter covered by attorney client privilege. Such exemptions are put in the law to provide shelter when necessary. Having an attorney present is not a carte blanche excuse for secrecy.)

– Discussion of security personnel or devices

– Discussions that may lead to criminal prosecution

– Discussion of business recruitment/economic development

u When can a public body go into a closed meeting?

Before a public body may go into a closed meeting (also known as executive session), it must make a motion in open session, stating the purpose of the closed meeting and identifying the specific exemption that covers the topic. A general reference such as “personnel matters” is not sufficient.

u Can a public body vote in a closed meeting?

No votes or actions may be taken in the closed session. All votes must be made in front of the public.

u Can I record a meeting?

Public meetings, except for executive sessions, may be recorded or filmed, provided you don’t interfere with the meeting.

More information

The above information was abbreviated for space purposes. To read the entire document, see “Citizens Guide to the FOIA” at www.scpress.org/Documents/citizen.pdf.