Public Records Requests

Birds-eye view of Beardshear Hall

Public Records Officer

Pamela Elliott Cain
1350 Beardshear Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011-2038
Phone: (515) 294-6218
Facsimile: (515) 294-1621
E-Mail: pelliott@iastate.edu

As a public agency in Iowa, Iowa State University is subject to the Iowa Public Records Law, Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code. Generally, documents held by government agencies are public. However, there are many exceptions, both statutory and court-made. These guidelines are intended to help members of the public understand the law and how it is applied at Iowa State University, and to help University units respond to these requests.

For access to records of the Iowa State University Foundation, please consult the separate guidelines created for the Foundation.

Q&A on Public Records Requests

What is the Public Records Law?
The Public Records law is intended to ensure that state agencies and institutions are accountable to the citizenry. It broadly creates a presumption that records created and held by public agencies are public. At the same time, the law provides for protection of confidential and proprietary information.

What Rights do Requesters of Records Have?
Persons may examine and receive copies of records, unless they are exempt from disclosure. A person may request a copy of a record in person, in writing, by telephone or by electronic means. As indicated below, the requester may be charged the actual cost for supervising the examination of records and for making, redacting and providing copies. The person cannot be required to give a reason for requesting the record or to put their request in writing, unless the person has requested certain confidential records.

What Records are Generally Subject to Disclosure?
Public records include records, documents, or other information that are owned by or in the possession of the University, whether they are in paper, electronic, or other form. However, the right to examine a record does not require the University to grant the requester access to the computer on which the record is stored.

The following kinds of records are those commonly made public:

  • Financial and budget records
  • Contracts
  • Policies, procedures and guidelines
  • Travel reimbursement documents
  • Employee compensation
  • Committee minutes and reports on general topics (not regarding specific individuals)

While such records are the kind that the law intended to make public, there may be instances when nondisclosure may be warranted.

What Records are Exempt from Disclosure?
There is a list of over fifty exemptions in the Iowa statute. See Iowa Code Sec. 22.7. The main exemptions are for:

  • Personal information in student records
  • Medical records
  • Trade secrets
  • Security-related information (See ISU Policy on Exemption for Security-Related Information)
  • Records containing information from persons outside of government, if disclosure could discourage persons from providing the information not required by law
  • Personal information in personnel files

It is not possible to provide a definitive list of all kinds of records that are exempt because Iowa law allows an exemption when disclosure would not be in the public interest. Iowa Code Sec. 22.7. For this reason, University employees processing such requests should seek advice of the persons listed below in case of questions.

If the Record is Exempt, is the University Required Not to Release It?
It depends. Generally, the law allows discretion to the University to release records that are exempt. However, many records, including student and medical records, are required by law to be maintained as confidential. In other cases, disclosure may be unfair to the subject of the record and lead to claims of violation of privacy.

How Should Sensitive Records Be Handled?
The following records are sensitive. Before releasing sensitive records, University units who are handling such requests should consult with the following persons:

  • Student records -- Registrar
  • Medical records -- University Counsel
  • Records related to criminal matters -- University Counsel
  • Personnel information -- Human Resources or University Counsel
  • Research records -- Research Compliance Office

What If the Information Requested Is Not in a Record?
If there is no record with the information, it is appropriate to respond to a public records request that there is no record with the requested information. Nothing requires the University to make a record that does not already exist.

Does the University Have to Respond?
The law is mandatory and imposes penalties for non-compliance. The law allows the imposition of damages of up to $500 per violation against persons who improperly deny access to public records. Such damages are not awarded when acting on a reasonable belief that the documents are exempt or acting upon advice of counsel. The court also awards attorney's fees if a court finds a violation of the law. Knowing violation of the public records law is a simple misdemeanor.

How Much Time Does the University Have to Respond?
Generally, University units should respond as soon as reasonable. Ordinarily we try to respond in 10 days unless there is a good reason. The University unit responding to the request should keep a record of its response to show how it has complied with the law.

Must Steps Be Taken To Protect Official Records from Damage?
If original records are provided, the University will have someone present to supervise the requester when they are going through the records. This is especially important if the University elects to grant a requester access to a computer to examine a record stored on it. The University will need to assure that the requester does not access any confidential documents stored on or accessible from the computer or make any changes to data or information systems. The University charges fees for such supervision.

University units may also set reasonable rules for examination of the records to preserve them. For example, a University unit may establish a rule to maintain the order of documents.

What Charges Apply?
All requesters will be charged for copies and access to public records when:

  • More than 20 pages of copies or scans are provided
  • More than one hour's cumulative time is required to find, retrieve, review, redact or supervise access to the records;
  • A list is requested; or
  • Computer systems must be programmed to provide the requested information.

The applicable charges are:

Copying and scanning charges:

$.25 per page (includes labor for copying)*, for requests exceeding 20 pages

Labor charges:

For supervision of access, finding, retrieving, reviewing for exempt content, redacting and contacting persons necessary to determine whether the content is exempt: $30 per hour for time spent in excess of one hour

Programming charges:

If the record is in an electronic database, is not available in a different format which is less expensive to produce, and retrieval requires programming charges: $75 per hour

Lists

$20 for standard or established lists, such as certain student or employee lists of home addresses, phone numbers or e-mail addresses. If the list is not standard or established, then labor and programming charges will be charged as applicable

Mailing

For mailing the records to requester: The actual costs of such mailing

*If the requester wants a copy of paper records scanned into an electronic format, the cost for such scanning will be charged at the same rate as copying if a scanning copier is available to the unit holding the records. If a scanning copier is not available, the actual charge of production through a copy center may be charged.

Can a Requester Be Required to Pay in Advance for Charges?
If the charges will exceed $25, or if the requester has failed to pay for previously provided records, the University may require advance payment of all or a part of the estimated fee.

How Can Requesters and the University Avoid Substantial or Unnecessary Charges?
The University unit responding to the request may wish to inform the requester of the estimated costs and, if the requester asks to limit costs, set a priority for the records the requester wishes to examine or copy. Additionally, if a requester has asked to copy a large number of records, the University unit may wish to invite the requester to visit the office first to examine the records and identify the specific records in which the requester is interested in having copied to avoid any unnecessary costs. Similarly, if the requester would like to minimize search charges and the files in which public records are located contain no sensitive information, then the University unit may wish to invite the requester to review the files and indentify the records to be examined or copied.

Does a Person Who Has Been Denied a Record Have Any Appeal Rights?
A person whose request has been denied may appeal to Pamela Elliott Cain, the University's Public Records Officer.

Who May University Units Contact For Assistance?
University units may wish to consult the following individuals about the public records law, especially where sensitive records are concerned:

Last Update: December 2011