The Pennsylvania Right to Know Act and the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law are responsible for providing freedom of information to the general public in this State. The Pennsylvania Right to Know Act is made up of a series of laws that have been created in order to ensure public’s access to the records of all governmental bodies in PA. The 2009 law that was passed by the state legislature claims that all documents will be presumed to be open to public access, unless the agency that is holding them proves that the information falls under exceptions.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act also regulates the main procedures to be followed during public meetings. According to Chapter 65, statutes 701-726 of the Pennsylvania Code, and the statement of purpose of the Open Meetings Act, “the General Assembly emphasizes on the right of the general public to be present at all meetings conducted by the agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies. This right is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and therefore reduces public’s effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.” Plus, the same legal documents claim the General Assembly finds that by respecting the public’s right to be present at all meetings of agencies, the functioning of the democratic process will be further improved. It is also being officially considered that secrecy in public affairs can and will undermine public’s trust in the government.
According to Section 506 entitled Requests, agencies are allowed to deny the person requesting to consult a public record, in case the requester has made several requests for the same record and his or her requests have somehow burdened the agency. However, a potential denial to receive access to a public record under this subsection of the Right to Know Act shall not completely disable one to make future request for a different public record. These are considered disruptive requests, along with the ones that refer to natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes and fires that might prevent timely access to the records. Pennsylvanian public agencies are also allowed to deny access to “historical, ancient or rare documents, records, archives and manuscripts” if granting access to them will physically damage the records. Also, agencies can exercise discretion in order to make otherwise exempt record accessible for inspection and also copying, under the following conditions: if the disclosure of the records is not prohibited under Federal or State laws, judicial order or decree and if the records are not protected by any special privileges.
Agencies are also supposed to grant access to records for verbal or written requests that are anonymous. Written requests can be submitted in person or sent via mail, e-mail, fax and other electronic means. These requests need to address the designated open-records officer as per section 502 of the Freedom to Know Act. Electronic access to these public records also needs to be granted by agencies. In case the requester is unwilling or cannot access the record online, he or she can send a written request to have the record converted to paper. A paper copy of the respective document shall be provided by the agency within 5 days of receipt of the written request.