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December 1, 2002

Contacting Government Bodies: Are Citizens' Letters Confidential?

What does Iowa law say about how government bodies should treat letters and e-mail messages from citizens? When citizens write to pose questions, voice concerns, express opinions, or lodge complaints, is their message confidential - or is it a public record available to others upon request?

Specific laws make some letters confidential. (For example, complaints about physicians to the Board of Medical Examiners are confidential by law.) But what if no specific statute applies?

Here are the basic principles of Iowa law that govern letters from the public:

Many citizen letters are considered open records. In fact, such letters must be available for examination and copying by others, if any of the following are true: (1) the person making the communication consents to disclosure; or (2) information in the communication can be disclosed without identifying the person who sent it; or, (3) information in the communication discloses facts surrounding a crime or illegal act, unless the disclosure would jeopardize an investigation or pose a danger to others. (Iowa Code section 22.7 (18).)

In some cases, citizen letters may be kept confidential. A public agency in Iowa may have discretion to keep communications from the public confidential, if all of the following are true: (1) the communication comes from a person outside of government; and (2) the communication is voluntary and not required by any law, rule or procedure; and (3) the government body could reasonably believe the public would be discouraged from communicating if the communications were available for public examination and copying.

Citizens who write to government bodies should be aware that their letters could be open for examination and copying by others. If confidentiality is important, citizens would be wise to say so in their letters. Government bodies can make better decisions about disclosing letters from the public if citizens communicate clearly about confidentiality.

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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