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June 1, 2002

"Confidential" Public Records

The phrase "confidential public records" sounds contradictory. How could a public record be confidential? The answer: Under Iowa law, public records can be open, confidential, or both

Iowa law generally favors unrestricted access to public records to assure accountable and open government with strong participation by citizens. However, by law, some public records must remain confidential, and other public records may remain confidential in the discretion of the lawful custodian.

Examples of how public records can be open, confidential or both:

  • Some public records are classified as confidential by specific state or federal laws, such as tax returns, college transcripts or grand jury transcripts.
  • Some records can be open or kept confidential at the discretion of the lawful custodians under Iowa's Public Records Law -- for example, certain information in personnel records.
  • Some public records are confidential at one point and open at another time. Example: Arrest warrants are confidential before they are served, but open to the public after they are served.
  • Sometimes, a single document contains a mixture of open and confidential information. Law enforcement investigative reports may contain information which is open for anyone to know (such as the date and location of a crime) and also contain confidential investigative information. In such situations, public officials must devise a way to provide access to the open information, while shielding the confidential information.

One rule of thumb always applies: A public record is open for examination by the public unless a specific law requires or allows the government body to keep it confidential.

Sunshine advisories are a general resource for government officials and citizens on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws – our "sunshine” laws.  Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) is an independent board that the Iowa Legislature established specifically to address open meetings and open records-related matters.  The IPIB provides information to the public and governmental entities on "sunshine" issues.

The IPIB, which has jurisdiction and authority to investigate and enforce Iowa's open meetings and open records laws, enables citizens to file a complaint if they believe that someone is violating these laws.

Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings should contact the Iowa Public Information Board. Iowa Public Information Board.

Wallace Building, Third Floor
502 East 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319


Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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