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November 21, 2003

Requests for Public Records: Must Citizens Show Up In Person?

Citizens often request public records over the telephone, or by mail, email or fax. But, surprisingly, Iowa's Public Records Law does not address such telephone or written requests. The law says citizens have the right to come to a government office during customary office hours and ask to examine and copy a public record (Iowa Code Ch. 22). Should public officials honor requests that are not presented in person?  Can a public official require a request be put into writing?

Guidelines for citizens and officials on requests for public records:

  • Check rules and policies.   Most state agencies have adopted rules authorizing  telephone or written requests for public records, and many cities and counties have similar policies. Exercising discretion to honor such requests often will conserve resources for both the government body and the requester.
  • Use written requests for clarity.   Putting a request in writing can help facilitate a response by the government body. A written list of the records being sought may assist the governmental body in retrieving the records and may improve the accuracy of the response. But a governmental body may not require that a request must be put into writing.
  • Requesters should not be required to identify themselves. Government offices may develop forms to be submitted in writing or filled out over the telephone, but forms should not force requesters to identify themselves or explain why they want to examine or copy public records. Public officials should not require requesters to supply any additional information, unless it is needed to send the records by mail, or to comply with laws limiting access to certain records (such as student academic records or medical records.)

When used with common sense, telephone or written requests can facilitate access to public records and help both government and the public. The wise exercise of discretion to honor requests made by telephone, or written requests submitted by mail, e-mail, or fax, is a sensible and practical means of providing access to public records.

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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