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December 1, 2004

Paper Files? Electronic Files? Tapes?

Public records are stored in many formats!

Modern government offices conduct business that generates records in many forms, including paper and electronic files, CDs, floppy disks, 911 voice tapes, and video tape recordings. How does Iowa's Public Records Law apply to various formats in which government bodies store information? How does government take advantage of the benefits of modern technology, and still assure the public's right of access under the Public Records Law?

Here are principles regarding public access to public records in various forms:

  • Scope: Iowa's Public Records Law applies to all records "preserved in any medium." Iowa Code sec. 22.1(3). Government cannot deny the public access to a record simply because it is stored in a format that makes access difficult or challenging. (Example: See Sunshine Advisory on access to information in data processing software -- "Logging on: How Do You Apply the Public Records Law in a Computer Age?")
  • Uniform Application: The Public Records Law must be applied uniformly, regardless of the format in which a record is stored. Iowa law generally gives people the right to examine and copy public records, but it recognizes numerous exceptions for records that must or may be kept confidential. Uniform application of any exceptions to disclosure may require a government body to transcribe or edit information. For example, a 911 audio tape included in a peace officer's investigative report may need to be transcribed or edited in order to disclose only the date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime. See Iowa Code sec. 22.7(5).
  • Copy Fees: Government bodies may charge the public the actual cost of examination and copying. Iowa Code sec. 22.3. So, decisions about the format in which public records are stored should include consideration of reasonable costs of providing access to the public.

Remember: Modern technology makes storage of information in various forms efficient for government - but the public's right of access to information must be assured.

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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